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Like Night at the Museum, Mr. Popper’s Penguins is an ostensible children’s movie starring a well-known comic actor (Jim Carrey) as a divorced dad who ultimately seeks to reconnect with estranged loved ones through his life-changing interaction with an unlikely menagerie.

Unlike Night at the Museum, the familial drama in Popper is not just the backstory; it's the main event. (Hence “ostensible.”) Yes, Popper has to figure out how to cope with the six penguins that take up residence in his sprawling, modern apartment, but it’s not like there are mummies and dinosaurs and Teddy Roosevelt running around. Heck, the penguins can’t even talk. Instead of venturing into the fantastic, Popper stays grounded firmly in the merely neurotic; we are asked to play along with a man who destroys his driven, businessy life in order to care for the flightless waterfowl that somehow, um, break the ice between himself and his wife and kids, and that is all there is to it. There is no magic, no – if you will excuse the Mary Poppins-Mr. Popper’s comparison – tea party on the ceiling. Just indoor snow, new life, and sweet memories.

Carrey, bless his heart, sells it. But will the kiddies buy? Early on, Popper discovers that his penguins like Charlie Chaplin movies, thanks to the Little Tramp’s trademark waddle. That sets up movie night with the kids and the birds, but listening to the (otherwise adequate) child actors strain to cough up laughs at silent comedy is rough going, and it gets at how adult a lot of the humor skews. It’s not that the jokes are blue. It’s just that seeing the Guggenheim’s circular ramp turned into an avian waterslide seems more likely to charm museum-going adults than effects-happy kids – to say nothing of making Angela Lansbury the butt of a line like, “The Taming of the Shrew is not a one-act play.” Thank goodness, I guess, for bird poop, bird farts, bird honks, and bird pratfalls. Otherwise, the kids in the audience might start to wonder about the film’s somewhat facile handling of the lasting damage and deep sorrow brought on by divorce.

As for the kids on screen – well, the film isn’t really about them. It’s about Jim Carrey’s Mr. Popper. But that’s okay: I like this new Jim Carry – or rather, this older Jim Carrey. The ol’ rubberface has lost a measure of its elasticity, and so he doesn’t have to mug in order for it to wrinkle and crease itself into the living mask of comedy. He just has to smile. The schtick is still there – you dance with who brung ya – but it’s been repurposed. Here, it’s very clear (though not overly dwelt upon) that it’s the routine of a man covering his pain, the glib operator trying to stay one joke ahead of his feelings. The film even has the guts to let Carrey the funnyman fail: after his spot-on Jimmy Stewart fails to get a reaction, he has the requisite neediness to ask, “seriously, that was uncanny, wasn’t it?” You can smile along with the one liners without feeling like you’re watching a stand-up routine disguised as story.

So much for the main event. As for the undercard: the direction is smooth and occasionally deft, and what’s onscreen looks bright and clean and clear – maybe Mr. Marks got through to the good people at AMC. The soundtrack is (mostly) mercifully unobtrusive, and the whole thing has a sincere sweetness that may catch you by surprise.

Two stars.

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Comments

Scott Marks June 17, 2011 @ 11:59 p.m.

You are a brave man, my friend. A very brave man. I could barely hold my head up during the trailer.

Comedians and animals (particularly those of the common garden CGI variety) do not mix. Charles "Beethoven" Grodin, Dr. Edward Dolittle Murphy, Goldthwait and Candy, Jason and Dunston, Donald and Francis, Hanks and Hooch, Black and Kong, Callas and Pete, Rover Dangerfield...

I'll give you Knotts and Limpet and especially Norton and Tonto, but for the most part, W.C. was right: "Never work with animals or children."

You want a funny movie animal? Arthur in "Beginners." Worth seeing just for the mutt's performance.

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Matthew Lickona June 18, 2011 @ 6:11 a.m.

See, Fields said that, and then Annie came along and did both, and on stage to boot. Maybe he was just bitter that they make lousy drinking buddies?

The trailer - at least the one I saw - was terrible precisely because it tried to emphasize the "OMG that guy has penguins in his apartment" aspect(for the kiddies, natch), when that really isn't the focus of the film.

But thanks for the tip!

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