Special Photo: 20th Century Fox. Jim Carrey stars in "Mr. Popper's Penguins."
Mr. Popper's Penguins (PG)
3 1/2 out of 4 stars
Hey, all you parents out there. Yeah, you. You say you're tired of having to sit through all of those animated features and overlong pirate movies and wish someone somewhere would make something that the whole family could enjoy. Do you really mean it?
Hollywood doesn't make many movies like "Mr. Popper's Penguins" because it's smart, warm and teaches lessons without bludgeoning the audience over the head. It's cute but not cloying, funny without being high or low brow and features a family (make that a divorced family of four) that is not supremely affected or built on a foundation of ignorant cliches. The movie's sole fault -- and it's a significant one -- is its steady stream of sight and sound gags involving animal incontinence and flatulence, but as you already know, kids love that stuff even if you don't.
If you have any knowledge of the 1930s book of the same name on which "Mr. Popper's Penguins" is based and hope to see a faithful adaptation of it, either stay away or significantly change your expectations. The only thing the two have in common is penguins -- those impossible to resist, tuxedoed, Antarctic-based birds that can't fly.
It's a good bet your tykes have already seen "Happy Feet" and (maybe) "March of the Penguins." Imagine a more restrained, non-musical version of the first cross-pollinated with a less dour version of the latter and you'll get "Mr. Popper's Penguins."
Speaking of more restrained -- the movie stars Jim Carrey as the title character in a performance that could have come across like fingernails on a chalkboard but never does. Containing much of the same personality traits of his character from "Liar, Liar," Carrey's Popper starts out with a similar kind of slick, money-grubbing glibness yet slowly morphs into the kind of man any of us would like to have as a dad. Don't think it's just a coincidence that the movie is being released on Father's Day weekend.
Matching, if not surpassing, the half-dozen penguins on the adorability scale are Popper's ex-wife Amanda (Carla Gugino), preteen daughter Janie (Madeline Carroll) and young son Billy (Maxwell Perry Cotton). Almost too good looking, they keep an even keel yet are still able to provide enough dramatic tension to make them interesting.
The movie's got a great villain (crack utility actor Clark Gregg as a loathsome zookeeper), an eccentric wealthy senior citizen (national treasure Angela Lansbury) and more veteran character actors than you can count.
Director Mark Waters ("The Spiderwick Chronicles, "Mean Girls," "The House of Yes") and his committee of screenwriters walk a really fine line with the material. Again apart from all of the bodily function stuff, they keep the movie solidly grounded in family friendly territory while also delivering a story with depth, lots of twists, distinct flavor and dramatic lift that never goes maudlin or limp.
The crowning achievement of the film belongs to Water's technical crew. It has been reported that shooting took place on a refrigerated set using actual live Gentoo penguins. While this might be possible, it is probably unlikely but it's still hard to tell for sure when watching the movie. Only a penguin expert or a zoologist could distinguish between what might be real and what is CGI or mechanical. Whatever the case, your children won't know, neither will they care and they will be tickled beyond repair.
And so will you. (Fox)