The charming 1938 children’s book “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” by Richard and Florence Atwater and with wonderful illustrations by Robert Lawson, ends with a “No, thank you” to Hollywood.
Mr. Tom Popper, a poor house painter, is inundated with penguins after being sent one from Admiral Drake in Antarctica. He eventually takes his dozen penguins on tour in a traveling stage act, making him wealthy and famous.
When a movie producer comes calling, Popper declines his entreaty, saying, “The life in Hollywood would not be good for the penguins.”
But Hollywood is persistent, particularly when penguins are at stake. Director Mark Waters (“Mean Girls,” ‘’Freaky Friday”) has finally gotten Mr. Popper and his flightless gang up on the big screen.
The differences are many between the book and the film, but “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” thanks in large part to Jim Carrey’s deft, funny performance, has its own charms. It’s a saccharine film, with predictable story lines and glossy studio veneer, but ? rather surprisingly ? it slides enough screwball comedy in between the cracks to avoid becoming the kiddie schmaltz it would seem destined to be.
The film opens in the 1970s with a young Tommy Popper communicating with his traveling father by ham radio. But his dad (radio name “Bald Eagle”) rarely has time for his son (“Tippy Toe”) while off on his never-ending adventures.
Three decades later, the grown Popper (Carrey) has become an elite Manhattan real estate developer. He specializes in buying up city landmarks and has done well enough that he’s on the cusp of being made a partner at his firm. His alliterative assistant Pippi (Ophelia Lovibond), trails him everywhere in a torrent of P-words, like a walking, talking tongue twister.
In his professional dedication, though, Popper has lost his wife, Amanda (Carla Gugino). His kids (Madeline Carroll, Maxwell Perry Cotton) have become accustomed to his absence, much like Popper had for his father.
“We have the most magical alternative weekends together,” says Popper sarcastically.
Popper’s world is shook ? and surely you saw this coming ? when a package arrives from his father, shortly after his death. He bequeaths Popper a penguin, who clashes in temper if not color with Popper’s sleek Park Avenue apartment. More soon arrive and eventually six of them are honking, pooping and waddling all over Popper’s place. He only keeps them because his kids take a shine to them.
A lot of flatulence, groin gags and slapstick follows. Popper grows closer to the penguins (and thus his family) while he tries to hide them from a poaching zookeeper (Clark Gregg) and a nosey neighbor (David Krumholtz).
The penguins ? a smooth mix of the real deal and CGI effects ? aren’t nauseatingly cute (thankfully), but are more endearingly bumbling. Put on “The Gold Rush,” and the tuxedoed ones can only gaze lovingly at their hero, Charlie Chaplin.
All of this would be simply banal if not for Waters’ surehandedness and Carrey’s clever inserts. This is staccato Carrey, throwing in lines and rubbery faces in between the kid movie machinations.
At one point, he tosses in a Jimmy Stewart impression, which is fitting because Carrey has a similar kind of presence in the film. Carrey is, of course, more comical, but after an absence from moviemaking, he slides well into the sort of role Stewart once donned: a New Yorker rediscovering his heart.
The Big Apple plays heavily ? far too heavily ? in the film. It was shot in the city (far from the country town of the book) and comes off as an obvious travelogue, with stops at Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Guggenheim ? whose Frank Lloyd Wright circular interior admittedly turns out to be an excellent penguin slide.
But the film has a nice breezy relationship to the present, with references to Mayor Bloomberg, “The Hurt Locker” and even CNBC’s “The Squawk Box” ? a clever touch.
As Popper balances family and profession, the building his firm is desperately seeking is Central Park’s Tavern on the Green. Angela Lansbury plays Mrs. Van Gundy (no relation, apparently, to the former Knicks coach), who is looking to sell.
It’s a great advertisement for Tavern, only it comes a bit too late. The restaurant closed last year after filing for bankruptcy.
Not all penguins can fly.