(by Dustin Putman
If this review were written by Tommy Popper's valued, alliteration-spouting assistant Pippi (Ophelia Lovibond), she might start it off by saying that "Mr. Popper's Penguins" is a particularly plain, patly penned picture preoccupied with penguin poop. She also could put forth that it's pedestrian pabulum, too prosaic for preteens and too plodding and progressively predictable for pubescent patrons. In other words, outside of the natural cute factor of the title animals, there is nothing to recommend, or even divert one's attention with. It's not funny, it's rarely clever, it's bland, it's forgettable, and it's thoroughly uninteresting unless corporate board meetings and a PG-rated fight to save a privately-owned New York City landmark set you all aquiver. For the rest of potential viewers, keep moving. There's nothing to see here. Article continues below
Shortly after the death of his explorer father, thriving Manhattan businessman Tommy Popper (Jim Carrey) receives a wooden crate at his front door with a penguin inside. The next day, five more show up, all of them part of a will from a man who always regretted not being around to spend enough time with his child. The very notion of cold-loving penguins becoming domesticated in the big city is a stretch, but through a series of misunderstandings and unspoken truths, Tommy soon has no choice but to keep them when young son Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton) mistakes the flightless birds for his birthday present. Billy and brooding teen sister Janie (Madeline Carroll) are threatening to grow estranged from their dad following his divorce from Amanda (Carla Gugino), but the penguins, as troublesome as they are, prove to be the catalysts in bringing Tommy's family back together.
Director Mark Waters previously helmed 2003's "Freaky Friday," 2004's "Mean Girls," and 2009's "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past," all of them smart, energetically mounted studio productions that exceeded their plot conventions. Adapted by Jared Stern (2008's "Bolt") and writing partners Sean Anders and John Morris (2010's "Hot Tub Time Machine") from the classic children's book by Richard and Florence Atwater, "Mr. Popper's Penguins" is such the direct opposite in terms of savviness and entertainment value that it could have been directed by any old nobody and viewers would be none the wiser. This is strictly paint-by-numbers filmmaking, so superficial and rudimentary that it is difficult to buy into any of it. The family drama playing out between Tommy, his kids, and an ex-wife who still has feelings for him is transparent at best, none of them believably sharing a history together or even very much affection. When they do warm up to each other, it derives from a selfish place since Tommy has used the penguins to endear his family to him, and they have bought into it, hook, line and sinker. Lame subplots involve Tommy's realization that the Tavern on the Green restaurant in Central Park is worth saving in its current historical form and another wherein Tommy commits untold crimes—physical assault, theft—trying to get back the penguins after he hands them over to a zoo director, one Nat Jones (Clark Gregg), with an ulterior motive.
Jim Carrey (2008's "Yes Man") is on autopilot as Tommy Popper, overshadowed by tuxedoed fowls who feel more wasted than not themselves. When Carrey isn't getting feces squirted on his face (this happens twice) or performing a choreographed dance routine with the penguins, he quite frankly just goes through the motions of a been-there, done-that character. His domestic struggles play like afterthoughts, while the early discovery that his dad is dead holds about as much emotional weight as the act of ordering lunch at a roadside diner. As ex-wife Amanda, Carla Gugino (2011's "Sucker Punch") has very nearly nothing to do, while Madeline Carroll (2010's "The Spy Next Door")—continuing to sell her talent short in throwaway projects—and Maxwell Perry Cotton (TV's "Brothers & Sisters") are forced by the screenplay to act like no other kids on the planet as Janie and Billy. No less than twice, Carroll and Cotton are instructed to simultaneously cheer on demand and give each other high-fives; it's cringe-inducing in its artificiality. Meanwhile, Angela Lansbury (2010's "Nanny McPhee Returns") shows up as the kind owner of Tavern on the Green, bringing dignity to a small part, and Clark Gregg (2011's "Thor") is positioned as the film's bad-guy heavy, despite his zoo director's actions seeming far more logical than Tommy's unlawful subsequent methods of retribution.
In "Mr. Popper's Penguins," bodily functions (oh, yes, there will be farts) criss-cross with the treacly depiction of a broken family coming back together and a half-hearted message about the fair treatment of wild animals forced out of their natural element. In all 97 minutes, there is one clever sight gag involving penguin silhouettes swimming in a flooded bathroom and the consistently amusing contributions of Ophelia Lovibond (2011's "No Strings Attached"), unassumingly charming as Popper's secretary Pippi, who never met a word that started with the letter "P" that she didn't like. The rest of the picture is an endurance test, not so much from heinousness as from utter boredom. Like 2009's Eddie Murphy misfire "Imagine That," "Mr. Popper's Penguin" is a flavorless, out-of-touch trifle without an idea in the world how to captivate its audience, young or old.