With Jim Carrey, Carla Gugino, Angela Lansbury, Philip Baker Hall, David Krumholtz; Running Time: 95 minutes; Rated PG (for mild rude humor and some language); Written by Sean Anders & John Morris and Jared Stern; Directed by Mark Waters.
There’s a story told that when the dreadful film of “Bonfire Of The Vanities” came out, someone said to author Tom Wolfe, “Did you see what they did to your book?” And Wolfe supposedly replied, “They didn’t do anything to my book. You can still read it.”
There have been movie adaptations of books nearly as long as there have been movies. Some are “faithful,” some are not. Good movies have been made from bad books and bad movies have been made from good books. Sometimes the books and movies are different and both are good. Such is the case with MR. POPPER’S PENGUINS.
Those expecting a faithful rendering of the Newbery Award-winning children’s classic will be disappointed. Instead, the filmmakers have taken the basic concept and a few ideas and come up with their own story. The result is a thoroughly entertaining film that is that rarity: something that the whole family can enjoy.
Tom Popper (Jim Carrey) handles big-time real estate deals in Manhattan. He’s on mostly good terms with his ex-wife Amanda (Carla Gugino) and their kids, but essentially focuses on business as his own father had before him. His father was an explorer of some sort and when he dies he sends his son a crate which contains a penguin. A penguin is an awkward pet at best, but particularly so in a Manhattan high-rise. The arrival of additional penguins only makes matters worse.
Without detailing the entire plot, the penguins become the vehicle by which Tom reconnects with both his kids and ex-wife and makes peace with the memory of his oft-absent father. Various complications include neighbor Kent (David Krumholtz), who is suspicious of the weird noises coming from Tom’s apartment, Tom’s boss Franklin (Philip Baker Hall) who wants him to close a big deal on the Tavern On The Green in Central Park, and Mrs. van Gundy (Angela Lansbury), the elderly but feisty owner of the Tavern who makes it clear she won’t sell to just anyone.
Carrey is in family-friendly mode here, so he’s closer to “Liar Liar” than “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.” He does have his zany moments, but he’s more in control of his abilities now and knows how to rein himself in. Carrey shares the screen with the penguins which vary from the real deal to computer-generated birds. The effect is seamless, and children and adults alike will be amused by such antics as when the penguins follow Popper to a charity event at the spiral-shaped Guggenheim Museum. There are the inevitable poop jokes, but even those grossed-out by such things may appreciate the payoff to the gag.
The supporting cast is good and special mention should be made of Ophelia Lovibond (“No Strings Attached”), who plays Popper’s assistant Pippi. The running joke is that she favors words beginning with the letter “P” which makes her every speech sound like a tongue twister. Better yet, she plays it absolutely straight since, as Popper notes, she has no idea that that’s what she’s doing.
Family films are often a chore that dutiful parents endure to share some moments with their kids. “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” may not be faithful to the original book, but now kids and parents will be able to enjoy both together.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.