Last Friday, Mr. Popper’s Penguins (Fox, June 2011; PG) opened in movie theaters. It is very loosely based on the beloved 1938 novel by Richard and Florence Atwater, which focuses on an absent-minded house painter who longs to travel to the Poles. The novel’s Mr. Popper receives a gift of twelve penguins from Admiral Drake in response to a letter Mr. Popper sent him about the explorer’s last expedition. Throughout the book, Mr. Popper’s quiet, caring, and thoughtful personality never wavers.
The film’s “Popper” (played by Jim Carrey) is significantly different. A cold-hearted, self-centered man, Carrey’s Popper is too focused on his career to appreciate his two children. However, his heart begins to thaw after the surprise arrival of six Gentoo penguins sent by his recently deceased father (a frequently absent explorer). Jim Carrey’s performance feels forced and inconsistent, with his character waffling between business shark, clueless dad, and Jim Carrey Being Jim Carrey. I often found it difficult to feel sympathy for Popper (although the authors of the screenplay should take at least partial blame for this), and subplots that had the potential to make his character easier to relate to (his feelings about his neglectful father, for example) were abruptly dropped and only sporadically picked back up. The film lacks the sweet gentleness that makes the book so special, and while the CGI-enhanced penguins provide plenty of slapstick and potty humor, the movie generally falls flat and is at best passably amusing. If you need to escape the heat, it’s an adequate summer diversion — but definitely nothing more.