If you were to rate all family movies containing CG animals on a scale from 1-10 of tolerability, where 1 is an excruciating ordeal like Air Bud and 10 is a touching Pixar masterpiece like Up, Mr. Popper’s Penguins would fall right in the middle. While it’s by no means a classic, the movie does have heart, thanks mostly to the undeniably cute penguins — which, for perhaps the first time in animation history, are never visually distinguishable as fake. (There were real penguins used in the filming, too, but to the filmmakers’ credit, you can’t tell when you’re seeing fake ones vs. real ones, unless a penguin is doing something obviously artificial, like pooping on Jim Carrey.) However, the story is also disappointingly hackneyed and repetitive — how many times do we need to see Jim Carrey play an all-business divorced dad learning how to love so he can win back his family? And how necessary to even a child’s sense of humor is the prolific appearance of penguin poo?
The story begins with the titular Mr. Popper (Jim Carrey), a Manhattan real estate developer with a penthouse apartment and an unrealistically civil relationship with his ex-wife, Amanda (Carla Gugino). He fits weekend visits with his kids, Janie and Billy (Madeline Carroll and Maxwell Perry Cotton), in between soulless sales meetings, where he uses his wildly animated demeanor and rakish charm to persuade New York commercial property owners to sell. Then, one day, we learn that Popper’s father — a world traveler who spent little time with Popper but sent him many treasures from his treks around the globe — has passed away. Dad’s will claims that he’s sent one last, posthumous souvenir to his son, and when Popper gets home, we discover what it is: a freezer crate containing one rambunctious penguin. Soon, a mix-up on the phone leads to a crate with five more penguins arriving at Popper’s doorstep — just in time for his children and former spouse to come calling, hoping to celebrate Billy’s birthday. Popper doesn’t have the heart to tell his kid that the gaggle of Antarctic friends is not his birthday present, and thusly finds himself opening his heart to penguin love and his balcony doors to the frigid East Coast winter, all in what turns into a bid to heal the rift between himself and his ex-wife.
There’s no denying that penguins are adorable, even or especially when we get to see them happily bonding with a human, following him around like ducklings. However, all other attempts to pull at your heart strings are kind of a letdown. Mr. Popper’s Penguins was based on a 1938 novel by Richard and Florence Atwater about a poor family with big dreams of seeing the world, who get their own penguin family by way of a famous world explorer with a radio show. So why is it so mind-numbingly necessary for the film adaptation to be about a divorced dad? Let alone one who’s already rich in the first place? It’s distracting how obvious it is that the changes weren’t born out of some screenwriter with an inspiration, but from a Hollywood studio calculatedly putting together yet another cookie-cutter family movie exactly the same way it has put together a million other cookie-cutter family movies. So much so that they’re lucky there were penguins around to steal the show, warming our hearts (so to speak) enough that we might forget how empty every scene is in which the actors are actually left to interact with each other.