Review in a Hurry: Cross-breeding pet antics from Ace Ventura with an absent-dad storyline from Liar Liar, this Jim Carrey and flippered-friends flick waddles unevenly through family comedy territory. Despite humor that relies too heavily on bird farting and pooping, the sometimes-sweet Penguins doesn’t stink.
The Bigger Picture: Devoted fans of the 1938 novel, from which Penguins was adapted, will probably object to all the changes. Written by Richard and Florence Atwater, the classic book centers on a poor, small-town house painter and his family who inherit 12 penguins from an Antarctic explorer/pen pal.
Well, this being a modern-day big-screen makeover, Mr. Popper (Carrey) is now a wealthy, Manhattan-based real-estate developer who’s divorced and sees his children on alternate weekends. At least there are still penguins!
The first tuxedoed bird, a posthumous gift from Popper’s father, arrives on the doorstep of Popper’s posh apartment. Initially, the career-focused guy, gunning to become partner at his firm, wants to get rid of the pesky honking creature. But then Popper sees how the penguin might help him reconnect with his two kids (Madeline Carroll, Maxwell Perry Cotton) and ex-wife (Carla Gugino).
Five more penguins are sent soon after and start laying eggs. It’s 101 Penguins! OK, not quite, though the expected pet hijinks ensue—Popper’s winged roomies swim in the toilet, invade the fridge, sleep in his bed, disrupt a swanky fundraiser, etc.—as Silly Putty-faced Carrey mugs and scrambles after them.
In-between the schtick (and unnecessary potty humor), life lessons are learned and bonds with the birdies and family are made. This broad comedy actually works best in its gentler moments—notably the sentimental opening about Popper’s papa, the penguins’ love of Charlie Chaplin movies and Popper’s “dates” with his ex.
Carrey establishes a warm rapport with Gugino and the child actors. Other supporting (human) players also keep this waterfowl flick afloat: Angela Lansbury as a high-society property owner, Clark Gregg as a smarmy zookeeper and Ophelia Lovibond as Popper’s perky assistant with a particular penchant for the letter “P.” Despite the bathroom jokes, the humans shine.
The 180—a Second Opinion: A recurring bit about Popper’s pet-hating neighbor promises conflict and comedic complications that never pile up, even as all the penguin droppings do.
by MATT STEVENS