Once one of filmdom’s kings of comedy, Jim Carrey returns to the screen this summer in a surprisingly clumsy and dull family comedy. Based on Richard and Florence Atwater’s 1938 book of the same name, Mr. Popper’s Penguins is a frontrunner for worst film of Carrey’s floundering career.

Director Mark Waters and a quartet of writers update, mainstream and dismantle the Atwaters’ original children’s fantasy. The movie has no charm and, something odd for a Carrey film, almost nothing amusing. While the original story worked as a whimsical children’s tale, the soulless, infantile film concocted from it is a chore to watch. Earning just $18.4 million in its opening weekend, this penguin story is also becoming one of the summer’s major flops.

Carrey plays a ruthlessly successful New York City real estate developer. He’s got a super-modern Park Avenue apartment and two kids who live with his ex-wife in a classic brownstone. Obviously, the makers of Mr. Popper’s Penguins unwisely ignored their proven source material, choosing to turn the film into another one of those weary Hollywood redemption stories.

The screenwriters assign Carrey’s Mr. Popper a life lesson. It’s a lesson about family versus work and learning to love a bunch of honking, flatulent penguins.

Popper’s lesson begins when a wooden crate arrives at his front door. It’s from his recently deceased adventurer dad. He opens the ice-packed box and sees what he assumes is a stuffed penguin. But the flightless bird from Antarctica is only temporarily frozen. It quickly thaws out and, when Popper’s not looking, bolts from the box.

Hoping to rid himself of the intruder, Popper calls a succession of local authorities, but both state and city agencies claim to have no authority in the matter. Popper’s first day as a penguin owner turns out to be practice for the arrival of five more penguins. This is not the sort of exotic-pet responsibility a busy professional such as Popper wants.

Ridding himself of the penguins becomes a greater challenge when Popper’s son, Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton), falls in the love with them. Not helping matters, Popper’s teen daughter, Janie (Madeline Carroll), browbeats her dad into promising Billy that the penguins can stay.

The cut-and-dried Mr. Popper’s Penguins fails to create the magical atmosphere that would make Popper’s transformation of his Manhattan apartment into a penguin playground credible. As one implausibility after another arises, Popper’s unimaginative adventures with penguins include penguin gas and a ritual celebration of penguin poop.

Carrey, co-starring in this lame duck comedy with Angela Lansbury as New York City grande dame Mrs. Van Gundy and Carla Gugino as Popper’s ex-wife, fulfills his contractual obligations. His energy level, though, is much lower than in many of his previous films and his penguin-based antics inspire almost no fun. By the looks of it, the movie must have been much more work than play.