Jim Carrey as a wealthy silver-tongued workaholic father who thrives off dodgy deals, neglects his children and through a magical strike of happenstance grows to learn the importance of family and The Things That Really Matter?
No, not Liar Liar, director Tom Shadyac’s 1997 side-splitter, still the shiniest jewel in Carrey’s comedy crown. We’re talking Mr. Popper’s Penguins, a cheesy moral fable adapted from a best-selling children’s book written in the 1930’s and centered around the aforementioned cookie cutter character. Mr Popper’s (Carrey) deal makin’ fast talkin’ time-is-money lifestyle gets thrown helter skelter when six penguins arrive unexpectedly at his shmick upper class apartment. Think Three Men and a Baby, but with one man and six slippery avians.
Popper doesn’t see the note from his late father explaining why the squawking cutesies have arrived and plans to get rid of them post-haste. But when his youngest child knocks on the front door Popper pretends they are presents for him — like Liar Liar, a major plot pivot hinges on a child’s birthday — and resolves to keep the penguins in his apartment.
Snow White and the Six Dwarves style, his new pets are named according to their behavioural patterns ie “Stinky,” “Bitey” etc and Popper establishes a relationship with them that, perversely, he never found with his children.
This central narrative plank runs concurrently with a climb-the-corporate-ladder plot line in which Popper endeavours to become a partner in his firm by pulling off a tough feat: buying a valuable piece of real estate off a wily old lady (Angela Lansbury) who has always refused to sell it.
The arrival of the six penguins, aided by their well animated presence, gives the film a borderline fantastical element. Audiences have treaded the rose-tinted road of “what’s really important” magical comedies many times before, and curtsey of Freaky Friday (2003) director Mark Waters this one offers, in the way of anything new, precisely zilch. The movie industry is still bleeding from wounds unintentionally inflicted by Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). A wonderful film, for sure, but one that cast a very long shadow, with many a wretched picture inspired by its unreserved heart-on-sleeve wholesomeness.
In recent times think The Family Man with Nicholas Cage, Ghosts of Girlfriend’s Past with Matthew McConaughey and particularly Imagine This with Eddie Murphy. In a sense Murphy and Carrey are in a similar phase of their careers: both past their comedic prime, having dabbled in different directions without having managed to free themselves from the shackles of their traditional shtick (unlike, say, Robin Williams).
Murphy and Carrey are still capable of drawing crowds, though when they play broad the crowds are now largey comprised of pre-pubescents and skeptics. Carrey has some substantial “something different” wins on the board — i.e. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) and I Love You Phillp Morris (2009) — but when he returns to his signature style, as is the case in Mr. Popper’s Penguins, he generates a been-there-done-that aura that seems impossible to shake.
Carrey’s presence, affable enough, can’t kick the goals the movie needs. Strangely, given he’s back in gangly, animated, elastic-faced mode, his energy feels a little flat.
Popper’s character arc is a big problem: he switches from prick to paladin and back again far too quickly, and the internal logic of the story crumbles concurrently with the transition. The film’s CGI penguins are well animated and the actors interact with them faultlessly, but the jokes in Mr. Popper’s Penguins — largely dialogue and slapstick — are sub-par and the story is the equivalent of a bucket of regurgitated fish food.
Mr. Popper’s Penguins’ Australian theatrical release date: June 30, 2011.