REVIEW: Toned-Down Jim Carrey Mostly Pulls Off Mr. Popper's Penguins
There's genius, somewhere, in the idea of casting Jim Carrey against a mini-flock of penguins: Their stiff, flapping carriage is its own kind of grace, and Carrey -- when he's not mugging, or getting whacked in the nuts with a soccer ball -- is still among the most gracefully physical of actors, no matter how many dud movies he makes.
And Mr. Popper's Penguins -- which was directed by Mark Waters and has next to nothing to do with the 1938 children's book by Richard and Florence Atwater, though it's credited as the source material -- isn't quite the dud you might expect. Carrey's Popper is a ruthless, unlikable Manhattan real-estate deal maker who's transformed by the love, if you can call it that, of a bunch of Arctic birds in tuxedo outfits. The penguins have been bequeathed to him by his late explorer dad, because lingering father issues seem to be a prerequisite for just about any movie these days. Popper hides the birds in his Park Avenue apartment, opening the terrace doors to let the cold winter air in -- the penguins thrive in the mini winter wonderland he creates for them, and paradoxically (or not), Popper himself begins to thaw.
The birds are great -- they do some very cute things via CGI, though they're best when they're just allowed to be themselves -- and they bring Popper closer to his two kids (Madeline Carroll and Maxwell Perry Cotton) and may even help him broker a reconciliation with his ex-wife (Carla Gugino, luscious as always). The extraneous plot mechanics involve Popper's bid to wrest Tavern on the Green from its imperious owner (a regal Angela Lansbury) and serve it up on a silver platter to his real-estate mogul bosses (one of them is played by the great Philip Baker Hall, in a tiny and sadly insignificant role).
Waters knows his way around a comedy -- he directed Mean Girls and the more entertaining than you'd think Freaky Friday -- and he manages, mostly, to keep Mr. Popper's Penguins under control. There are plenty of moments that are way too broad (see the aforementioned soccer-ball-in-the-nuts reference), but Waters never pushes the picture into outright garishness. Cinematographer Florian Ballhaus makes wintertime New York look mighty pretty. And there's at least one wonderful sight gag, in which a frosted bathroom door becomes an ad hoc aquarium window, with one of our two-tone feathered friends drifting along happily behind it. The whole enterprise is surprisingly painless, albeit in an icy-cool, numbed-out way.
And Carrey, thank goodness, has toned down his tendency toward comedic face-pulling in recent years. (His turn in I Love You Philip Morris, so deeply moving in places, is just one example.) The penguins here are beautiful, but they're not all for real: Some of their markings are so distinct they look as if they've been drawn on with a Sharpie, and maybe they have been -- there's lots of computer enhancement at work here. Still, Carrey treats them as equal partners, and his efforts pay off. At one point he leads them in a chorus line soft-shoe, evoking Dick Van Dyke shuffling along with his cartoon penguins in Mary Poppins. And in the movie's best-conceived sequence, Popper heads off to a black-tie benefit at the Guggenheim Museum, and his little friends, who have already imprinted on him big-time, escape Park Avenue to follow him there. The vision of Carrey in a penguin suit, surrounded by a clatter of enthusiastic birds whose nudity is its own kind of elegant evening wear, is something to behold. In Mr. Popper's Penguins, Carrey never asks, "Who's your daddy?" That's only because he doesn't need to.