Friday, 5 August 2011

'Mr. Popper's Penguins' review:

Promising a return to Jim Carey's rubber-faced and anarchic persona that it never quite delivers, 'Mr. Popper's Penguins' is a rote, inoffensive family comedy in which the title character (a slick-haired, shark of a businessman) learns all about the importance of love and family via six adorable penguins. The animals unexpectedly arrive at a swanky New York apartment as Popper's inheritance following the death of his father, an explorer, whose lifelong absence has given the character considerable daddy issues. The knock-on effect of which accounts for the character's failed marriage (to Carla Gugino) and relationship with his teenage kids, who he rarely has time for.

It's a tale familiar to anyone who's ever been patronised by Spielberg's 'Hook' or Carey's own 'Liar Liar', in which wealthy Hollywood types castigate working fathers for not attending enough baseball games/dance recitals, whilst espousing the eternal virtue of the nuclear family (Carey and Gugino must reconcile in the kids' movie tradition of 'The Parent Trap'). It goes without saying that along the way Carey must decide not to cheat a nice elderly lady (Angela Lansbury) out of her property, at the expense of earning a partnership at his firm, thus becoming a better man.

As with other recent live-action human/CGI animal buddy movies, such as 'Alvin and the Chipmunks' and 'Hop', a lot of the humour here revolves around fecal matter, with 'Mean Girls' director Mark Waters never missing an opportunity to show CGI bird poop streaming out of his CGI marine birds - to the audible delight of the child audience. Otherwise it's a succession of pratfalls amidst convoluted animal mayhem as the birds flood Popper's apartment, cause chaos at an arts benefit and stage a last-gasp zoo breakout in the name of madcap wackiness.

With this goofy premise in mind it seems odd that Carey himself, the gurning, limb-waving loon of 'The Mask' and 'Ace Ventura', gives such a restrained performance. There are isolated bits of daft, exaggerated comic business, but otherwise the actor seems to be continuing his decade long apology for having once been a comedian as he invests a lot of heartfelt sincerity into Popper's dramatic arc at the expense of laughs. Worse still, some of his better comic moments, such as his Jimmy Stewart impression, seem destined to go over the heads of the young audience altogether.

There is some fun to be had watching a supporting cast that includes Jeffrey Tambor, Phillip Baker Hall and Clark Gregg, even if they are underused and ill-served by the material, whilst British actress Ophelia Lovibond is a cute and mildly amusing presence as Popper's alliteration abusing assistant Pippi (a person whose primary purpose pertains to proliferating pronounced p-words). Though the intention is doubtless for the unimaginatively nicknamed penguins themselves to be the stars of the show: the squawking Loudy, flatulent Stinky, clumsy Nimrod, "adorable" Lovey, overzealous Bitey and flight-obsessed Captain. However, their cute appeal relies heavily on a retelling of the popular myth of the animals as dedicated monogamists and attentive parents, a la 'March of the Penguins'. And, even if you ignore the politics at play, animals that come into your house, crap everywhere and keep you up all night face a hard time being considered cute in my estimations.

Ultimately the flavourless, odorless, cinematic beige that is 'Mr. Popper's Penguins' feels like a Christmas movie released a few months early - possibly with eyes on a festive DVD release which could prove considerably more lucrative than this tepid theatrical outing. It's admittedly slightly more tasteful and watchable than the other animal movies of the last few years, but it's unlikely to inspire a resurgence of mid-90s-style Carey-mania.

'Mr. Popper's Penguins' is out today in the UK and rated 'PG' by the BBFC.

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