If you’re wondering where the Jim Carrey of Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Dumb and Dumber fame went, don’t look to Mr. Popper’s Penguins for answers. The once boundlessly energetic comedian is no longer trying so hard to impress viewers with his hyper brand of slapstick. While that may not sound so bad to anyone who soberly remembers just how labored many of his ’90s star vehicles were, his current shtick, or lack thereof, is much, much worse.
In director Mark Waters’s bland adaptation of Richard and Florence Atwater’s beloved children’s book, Carrey plays beleaguered father Thomas Popper. As an adult, Popper takes up his absent father’s bad habit of neglecting his own children, but when his father dies, Popper also reluctantly inherits six penguins bequeathed to him in his father’s will. After Popper promises his sullen preteen son, Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton), that he’ll keep the penguins, he slowly learns how to take care of them. Just by learning to love this brood of birds, who apparently all like Charlie Chaplin movies, pooping at random, and extreme cold, Popper inadvertently manages to win back the affection of his son, his hormonal teenage daughter, Janie (Madeline Carroll), and even his bemused ex-wife, Amanda (Carla Gugino).
Popper’s newfound familial bliss is threatened when a nosy neighbor and an evil, mustache-twirling penguin expert (Clark Gregg) try to separate him from his penguins. On top of that, to get the promotion he wants, Popper has to try to convince old Mrs. Von Gundy (Angela Lansbury), the stodgy owner of Tavern on the Green, to sell the landmark property to his three equally old bosses (Popper makes several lame jokes about how his head boss, played by Philip Baker Hall, is really old).
Despite the fact that he lives with six penguins in his Manhattan condo, Popper is pretty straitjacketed and flavorless. The film’s committee of three screenwriters wrote the role in such an indistinct way that any comedian could have played him. Then again, had Carrey been given the chance to cut loose and improvise, he still probably wouldn’t have been able to save Mr. Popper’s Penguins from its own blandness. That’s partly because Waters and his screenwriters prioritized making the film’s New York City location look attractive instead of making the character, human and penguins alike, relatable and/or funny. Basically a feature-length advertisement for Manhattan landmarks, the film’s most memorable sequence, set inside the Guggenheim, has Mrs. Von Gundy hosting a charity fundraiser and, because Popper is in attendance, his penguins invade and inadvertently transform the museum into a giant water slide. But the scene is only interesting because of the Guggenheim’s spiral architecture. Spatially, Waters doesn’t do anything particularly original or exciting with the locale; all he does is turn an already fun-to-look-at location into a theme-park ride.
In spite of his adorable CG fish-eating accessories, Popper is just another lazy, family-friendly stock patriarch in a long line of clueless but basically well-meaning fathers that Carrey has played over the years. Replace the film’s penguins with a pathological inability to tell a lie and you wouldn’t be able to tell Popper from the well-meaning dad who learns how to care for his family by having not-so-wacky adventures in Liar, Liar.
Then again, at least Carrey had every opportunity to flail his arms, make faces, and flash his toothy grin in Liar, Liar. In Mr. Popper’s Penguins, he isn’t allowed to practice his signature brand of broad physical comedy since most of the time he’s stuck reacting to his co-stars instead of showboating. But when he does, no matter how corny the jokes he makes are (at one point, he ties Gregg’s hands up and uses them to punch him in the face repeatedly while braying, “Why are you hitting yourself?”), Mr. Popper’s Penguins jerkily comes to life. Come back, The Cable Guy! Come back!