Mr. Popper's Penguins is precious, protracted and pleasant enough, if not exactly potty trained.
It pops from beloved children's book to the screen as a passable time-passer for the pre-school set.
Oh, the alliteration! That's one of the gags that works in this motion picture Popper. It's a Jim Carrey vehicle, through and through. But while he riffs, mugs, jokes and impersonates as a workaholic developer-dad who needs penguins to teach him that family comes first, the trio of screenwriters show a lot of alliterative love to Ophelia Lovibond (No Strings Attached), who plays Popper's punctilious pal Friday, Pippi.
"Punctuality is a particular priority for this prospect," she patters as Tom tries to charm an aged matriarch (Angela Lansbury) into selling Central Park's Tavern on the Green. Fine, where is she in the Guggenheim Museum? "Proximate to the Pissarro painting."
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You wouldn't expect the movie based on a thin children's book from 1938 to be much like that book. So what the screenwriters and Mark Waters, the director of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and The Spiderwick Chronicles, do is turn it into a generic and sentimental dad-lost-his-family-because-he-was-married-to-his-job story, sort of The Haunted Mansion or Imagine That without Eddie Murphy.
It's not very good, but it works better than it has any right to because Carrey never phones it in.
In a pitiful prologue, we see little Tom Popper grow up knowing his scientist/explorer dad mostly through short-wave radio updates. As an adult, Tom has mimicked his dad. He has put work first. That's why he lost wife Amanda (Carla Gugino) and why kids Janie (Madeline Carroll of Flipped) and Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton) don't trust "Popper," as they call him — too many broken play dates and broken promises.
Then the Popper patriarch passes, and passes on to his progeny a penguin. More penguins show up. The designer apartment is trashed, the neighbors are puzzled and his bosses (Philip Baker Hall among them) are peeved. Popper can't part with the penguins because Billy thinks they were a present.
The digital Gentoo penguins do a few amusing things, but Waters & Co. too often fall back on penguin poo jokes. Still, whatever desperation there was for Carrey to return to co-starring with animals (Ace Ventura made him a star), he gamely gives his all, imitating Charlie Chaplin's walk (the penguins love old Chaplin flicks), impersonating Jimmy Stewart and taking a shot at launching another Ventura-like catch-phrase: "Yabsolutely!"
The toothless villain is a zookeeper (Clark Gregg), perfectly reasonable every time he tells Popper he has no business turning his apartment into a skating rink. And the sentiments expressed here — that there are some things a parent can't afford to miss, that young love means getting your heart broken — are nothing new.
But they are to the people these penguins and their Mr. Popper play to. And to kids 10 and younger, there is no penguin potty prank that is beyond the pale.