The path of post-superstardom is a treacherous one for big-screen comedians, paved as it is with second-rate opportunities for dramedy schmaltz (See: Robin Williams in Patch Adams), wretched remakes (Steve Martin’s Pink Panther retreads), and talking-animal kiddie crap (Eddie Murphy’s Dr. Doolittle do-overs). Mr. Popper’s Penguins finds Jim Carrey choosing option number three for his latest misbegotten bid to rediscover his king-of-the-box-office mojo, a film that pairs the rubber-faced actor with a gaggle of penguins so cutely anthropomorphized that they’d make his iconic pet detective Ace Ventura giggle with glee.
Headlining such conventional dreck is a fall from grace of a familiar sort. And yet that makes it no less embarrassing to behold this disreputable slide into pratfalling with cuddly CG creatures, as Mr. Popper’s Penguins fervently panders to an under-10 audience with Carrey’s main requirement only to mug in a variety of reaction shots to his beaked sidekicks’ mischievous hijinks and—more crucially still—to provide name-brand legitimacy to a dim and unfunny project.
Loosely based on Richard and Florence Atwater’s children’s novel, Mark Waters’s film centers on Mr. Popper (Carrey), a Manhattan real estate shark who treats his own offspring with the same career-over-brood detachment that his own globe-trotting father did to him. Bequeathed a live penguin by his deceased dad, and shortly thereafter receiving five more, Popper initially bristles, but, when his featureless son, Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton), and boy-trouble-plagued daughter, Janie (Madeline Carroll), warm to the tuxedoed creatures, he embraces them as a way to mend fences with his progeny—and, wouldn’t you know, they also help him reconnect with his ex-wife (Carla Gugino) and thaw his frozen heart! This process involves being kicked in both the crotch and the head with a soccer ball, as well as having a penguin poop white-liquid nastiness in his face. The sole saving grace to the ensuing slapsticky action is that, after discovering how to manually control the animals’ defecation, Popper doesn’t use the birds’ squirting skills as a weapon against the villainous zookeeper (Clark Gregg) who wants to confiscate them.
The saddest thing about Popper is that, aside from a Jimmy Stewart impersonation and a pretending-to-be-in-slow-motion gag, it exploits so little of Carrey’s trademark uninhibited zaniness. The movie could have been headlined by anyone; Tim Allen would have been perfect. Waters’s bland aesthetics do nothing to elevate Carrey’s hammy performance, which is neutered by a formula that has him first infuriated by the penguins—which are given names like “Stinky” and “Nimrod,” and behave like children who understand English—and then maudlin and heroic when one of their eggs won’t hatch and he learns what’s really important.
Seemingly driven by a lucrative tax-credit production deal, Popper goes overboard advertising New York City, pivoting its plot around jaunts to Central Park and the Guggenheim, references to the Yankees and the Giants, and Popper’s attempts to purchase Tavern on the Green from an owner (a wasted Angela Lansbury) who prizes noble character over greed. Illogicality is a guiding principle throughout, including with regards to why this winter-set heart-warmer is receiving a June theatrical release. Yet truly fatal is the air of desperation clinging to the story’s every element, from Popper repeatedly using his septuagenarian boss (Philip Baker Hall) as a punching bag for “You’re old” jokes, to a dance routine with his avian sextet, to his British assistant, Pippy (Ophelia Lovibond), speaking only in P-word alliterative sentences. In fact, the only faint upside to this excruciating dud is that, in its movie clips of Charlie Chaplin—who the mesmerized birds view as a kindred waddling spirit—the film might hopefully function for some kids as a gateway to superior comedy cinema.