Endearing 'Penguins' Power Carrey's Latest
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Not long ago, the "South Park" gang took a satirical dump on "Mr. Popper's Penguins." At the movies, Stan chortled over an excremental preview of a cartoon Jim Carrey line-dancing with six curl-topped turds. The "South Park" writers are usually spot-on when they skewer sacred (and commercial) cows, and lord knows Carrey's ripe to fall back into his old comedic groove, after losing fans with that outside-the-box performance in "I Love You Phillip Morris." And penguins? Haven't we had enough of these adorable waddlers marching and surfing and whatnot?
Turns out that "Mr. Popper's Penguins" deserves more than a flush down the critical/box-office commode. "Penguins" is neither saccharine nor knowing, so it will please neither parents looking for gooey kidstuff nor offspring jonesing for high-tech animations stuffed with hip pop-cult puns and allusions. ("Penguins" does have a good one: As Popper gingerly moves in on his sulking teenaged daughter, her little brother deadpans, "You're in the hurt locker now!") Adapted from a beloved 1938 children's book by Richard and Florence Atwater, this lightweight, mostly undirected fantasy goes down easy, gifting audiences with some laughs and uncomplicated fun. It's an old-fashioned movie, gentling its way toward satisfying familial reunion, fueled by almost always endearing penguin antics.
In the prologue of "Penguins," a wide-eyed little boy, c. 1976, chats with his dad via shortwave radio: "Tippy-toe to Bald Eagle!" The child's clearly enchanted by his nomad father's exotic National Geographic discoveries; there's real magic in their static-y connection. But eventually the radio falls silent, and 30 years later the disappointed son has grown up to be soulless real estate shark and divorced, absentee dad.
Seducing a reluctant exec (Jeffrey Tambor, exiting the movie too soon) into selling a piece of desirable real estate, Popper (Carrey) cinematically animates a thrilling sea journey, his assistant deftly providing props and sound effects. The message is "cut loose and sail away to adventure," and Popper croons that siren song with a vengeance. The irony isn't subtle -- the boy abandoned by a rootless dad grows up to wheel and deal in a "grounded" commodity, persuading others to take to the road. Not subtle, but far from the dumb shorthand that passes for character development in too many contemporary comedies.
Sharing the stage with real and CGI'd penguins, as well as charming Carla Gugino (the ex-Mrs. Popper) and a couple of surprisingly un-annoying Popper progeny, Carrey tones down his Plastic Man physical comedy and facial contortions. Weaving and bobbing as he conjures a storm off Cape Horn, changing "faces" on a dime while conning the canny owner (Angela Lansbury) of Manhattan's venerable Tavern on the Green, faking a slo-mo entrance to a press conference -- this is vintage Carrey, but contained, neither desperate nor goofily manic.
It's Mr. Popper Senior, deceased at last in some far-off port of call, who mails six gentoo penguins to a son with a life so empty he greets Monday morning like the Holy Grail. It doesn't take long for Popper Junior (and his ex-wife and kids) to give it up for the little black-and-white charmers, and transform his minimalist digs into Antarctic chic. They purr, chirp, and warble their way into his heart -- and shock him out of sound sleep with eardrum-exploding shrieks delivered inches from his face. One, an irresistible klutz, walks into walls, tips over during a line dance, mistakes a snow globe for an egg. A veritable Charlie Chaplin of penguins, he, like his whole clan, is mesmerized by the Little Tramp tottering through silent movies on TV.
The feathered family imprints on Popper, following him everywhere -- onto the soccer field to keel over as one when "pop" goes down, and even into the Guggenheim Museum where they waterslide the circular balconies. The salesman who never let a school play get in the way of work puts penguins first, continually failing to close the all-important Tavern deal. (Remember leopard-bedeviled Cary Grant's increasingly futile attempts to meet with a dowager donor in the brilliant screwball comedy "Bringing Up Baby"?)
Predictably, Mr. Popper's family -- humans and gentoos -- unite, penguin eggs get hatched, and the movie drifts toward happy homes and endings. There's some obligatory emotional backsliding, and a showdown with a gentoo-napping zookeeper who persists in believing that animals are just animals -- and that the love of a penguin can always be bought with a tasty fish.
Probably "Mr. Popper's Penguins" will never make anybody's list of standout children's movies, and summer's heavy-hitting mutants, superheroes and E.T.s will likely blow away this weightless diversion. But the little girl who lit up at the sight of a penguin in triumphant, magical flight took home some joy ... and maybe that shouldn't be taken lightly in this season of dark and darker movies.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.