As bastardizations of beloved children’s books go, this one isn’t terrible—certainly not as offensive as The Cat in the Hat, for instance—but it has the potential to be a genuinely good movie and blows it. That’s a real shame. In a total reinvention of Richard and Florence Atwater’s prize-winning 1938 book, Jim Carrey plays a hotshot New York City real-estate dealmaker (and divorced dad) whose globe-trotting father was a distant presence as he was growing up. When the old man dies he bequeaths to his son a live penguin; then, through a miscommunication, apartment-dweller Carrey acquires—
—five more of the little creatures.
Ironically, the arrival of the penguins energizes Carrey’s relationship with his son and daughter, not to mention his ex-wife (Carla Gugino). In time, it softens some of his hard edges, even in his pursuit of a wealthy woman (Angela Lansbury) whom he’s trying to persuade to sell him a prize property: the venerable Tavern on the Green in Central Park.
Jim Carrey is in pretty good form here, and I suppose many people will accept this as innocuous family fare. But taken on its storytelling merits, Mr. Popper’s Penguins is half-baked at best. Without divulging too many details, Carrey has a sudden, unexplained change of character at a crucial point in the story that undermines the rest of the picture and evaporates its emotional hold on the audience. I feel bad for parents who will be stuck with trying to explain this away. (I also feel sorry for families who will be inspired to visit Tavern on the Green, which ended its long run as a restaurant in 2009—although it still stands as a visitor center.)
The nicest thing about the movie is that it incorporates fleeting footage from several Charlie Chaplin comedies, as Carrey discovers that the penguins are mesmerized by his waddling Little Tramp figure on his television screen. If only one kid who sees this movie comes away curious enough to watch Chaplin, too, Mr. Popper’s Penguins will have done a great service.