MR POPPERS PENGUINS contains that ineffable quality of both whimsy and heart that makes it as irresistible to kids as it is to adults. Based on the novel by Richard and Florence Atwater, it is time-honored tale of a man who has lost the wonder of childhood only to regain it in the most unexpected of fashions.
The loss was the result of the titular Mr. Popper (Jim Carrey) being disappointed by his fathers long absences when he was growing up. The senior Popper was an explorer and though Popper juniors imagination was fired by stories and souvenirs of faraway places, it didnt make up for the missed birthdays. Unfortunately, when he grows up, he follows the example set for him and makes the same mistakes. The difference is that his adventures are in New York City real estate, where the long hours and cynical business attitude have cost him his wife (Carla Gugino) and is threatening to completely alienate him from his kids, teenage daughter Janie (Madeline Carroll) and her cute-as-a-button younger brother, Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton) as well. The talent for wheeling and dealing to the exclusion of all else, though, has put him in prime position to become a partner in his firm. It all hangs on one deal, the one piece of property, Tavern on the Green in Central Park, that no one has been able to persuade its owner, grande dame society matron Mrs. Van Gundy (Angela Lansbury), to sell. Popper, a man quick on his feet and with wits even quicker, grabs the opportunity with gusto, ably assisted by his secretary, Pippi (Ophelia Lovibond), who has a subconscious devotion to the voiceless bilabial plosive qualities that define the letter P such that she profusely peppers her speech with it. All is going well until hes foiled by the last present his father will ever send him. A penguin. Soon joined by five other penguins who take over his life, charm his children into wanting to be around him, and yet threaten hearth, home, and his future with his firm.
Carrey has never been better, filing down the rough edges of his manic tendencies into a performance that times the comedy of pratfalls and slow burns with faultless precision. The loss of rough edges also allows him to bring the warmth to the drama that the story demands, as Popper opens the windows of his posh apartment to the snows of a New York winter, and in the process has his heart melted by the gaggle of birds who adopt him unconditionally. But not without the troubles that bored flightless birds in a confined space bring. There is in him a troubled quality that gets to the sadness of Poppers orderly, pre-penguin life in a posh apartment that is more emotionally cold than snow and ice could ever be. Yet its never off-putting, it provokes empathy, not scorn. As for the penguins, computer-generated for the most part, they each have their distinct personalities that bend to the atomic limits, never quite break, the essential rules of penguin-ness. Most are the one-note jokes that names such as Bitey and Stinky evoke, but Captain, with her flight-envy and determination to win over Popper on her own terms, qualifies as fully rounded. The close-up of her disconcertingly spiky tongue is one of the high points of the film, too, for its shock value, its intrinsic oddity, and Careys reaction.
The charm of MR POPPERS PENGUINS is tart rather than syrupy. This fantasy world where penguins are at home in a refrigerated cheese drawer is also aware of the world at large, and of its being a difficult place requiring skill to negotiate, whether evading the zookeeper (Clark Gregg) who wants the penguins for the attraction value, not their companionship, to Poppers desire but innate inability to connect with the teen heartache Janie is going through. Brisk and heartfelt, theres not a wasted moment in this frolic that is anything but frivolous.