There are six of them — Captain, Lovey, Bitey, Nimrod, Stinky and Loudy — named like Snow White's dwarfs for their personality quirks. And despite their elegant white tie and tails look, they wreak a remarkable amount of smile-inducing havoc anywhere their bright orange webbies take them, which is into virtually every corner of Mr. Popper's life.
For director Mark Waters, who peaked early with "Mean Girls" in 2004 and has struggled more than succeeded since, "Mr. Popper's" represents a modest uptick. Screenwriters Sean Anders and John Morris (the pair behind the underappreciated silly splash of "Hot Tub Time Machine") and Jared Stern have taken the bones of the 1938 children's classic by Richard and Florence Atwater — man gets penguins, life is upended, lessons are learned — and gives the film lots of modern problems, maybe one or two too many.
Mr. Popper's base of operation shifts from the country to the big city, New York. He's no longer a lowly house painter but a big-shot Manhattan real estate wheeler-dealer. But at its heart, Mr. Popper's journey of self-discovery has changed, with the movie introducing the notion of and building the film around what it takes to be a good father in these complicated times.
The film begins with a quick flashback of young Tommy Popper getting ham radio dispatches from his world-traveling adventurer father (an absentee dad, in modern parlance). When next we see him, he's grown into a successful exec, with a divorce on the books, the kids every other weekend and his emotions carefully shelved. Yet in his pristine Manhattan penthouse, it's clear to see that he's lonely at the top.
With the news of his father's death comes an unexpected legacy: a penguin. One penguin soon becomes six (it's a shipping issue). Care and feeding proves difficult to say the least. His "p" popping, alliterating assistant Pippi (Ophelia Lovibond) trails along doing what she can. Harder to handle for this corporate climber is Popper's growing affection for the birds and the way they're warming up relations with the family.
The family is an amiable one with Carla Gugino as the former missus more bemused than bitter. Madeline Carroll ("Swing Vote") and Maxwell Perry Cotton are the teen and pre-teen offspring, Janie and Billy, who've been put in charge of general discontent. But you can tell there's a lot of goodwill lingering around the edges since they are charmed by Dad's transformation from uptight to slightly crazy as he converts his apartment into a frigid ice and snow playground for his penguin pack.
There are a couple of outside pressures that keep the action cooking. Popper's acquisition-hungry bosses want Tavern on the Green, and Popper's future is riding on persuading its reluctant society doyenne (Angela Lansbury) to sell. The other is the New York Zoo's "flightless bird specialist" (Craig Gregg), who, in a move reminiscent of "101 Dalmatians," is trying to get his hands on the birds for questionable reasons.
But the-impossible-to-upstage stars are the penguins, a combination of real Gentoos specially trained for the film and some computer-generated counterparts. The special effects gurus blend the two seamlessly, making it easy to believe there was no digital wizardry involved, which is perhaps the niftiest trick of all.
The birds also provide the film's slapstick extremes, with Carrey setting most of his "Dumb and Dumber" aside. Though the biggest action number has the birds crashing a major charity event at the Guggenheim Museum, using its grand spiral ramp for a water slide, the smaller moments are sometimes more satisfying. Like a "quiet" dinner at home, table set, with Popper unfazed by the penguins' fishy mess and atrocious manners.
Ironically, the eye of the storm is a much-toned-down Carrey. It's almost as if he senses that his outsize comic antics have come to irritate more than amuse audiences in recent years. Yet somehow even with six pairs of happy feet and Carrey keeping his rubber-band lips and googly eyes mostly in check, there's a spark missing — that bit of magic that would have made it possible for "Mr. Popper's Penguins" to soar.