FOR THE JUNEAU EMPIRE
When Ace Ventura (Jim Carrey) went into his super-slow-mo mode — wearing a pink tutu and trying to gain access to a mental hospital — in 1994, I laughed so much my face eventually hurt from smiling. When Fletcher Reede (Carrey’s character in 1997’s “Liar Liar”) busted out “the claw” to interact with his kids, it was cheesy as hell but he was funny enough to cancel out the cheese. “Mr. Popper’s Penguins”, the new children’s comedy from director Mark Waters based on a 1938 children’s book, features Carrey doing both the slow-mo routine and the cheesy dad bit. In 2011, however, neither element works quite as well.
It is possible that this is the one instance when saying, “It’s not you, it’s me,” could actually be true. “It isn’t you, Mr. Carrey. It’s me.” After all, I was 12 years old when I first saw “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective”. I was barely a teenager when I saw “Liar Liar” twice in theaters. On the other hand, I have watched “Ace” numerous times over the years, “Liar Liar” too, and both still made me laugh even as I got older. “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” made me chuckle a couple of times. Real, genuine, face-hurting laughter?
I called “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” a “children’s comedy” and that is how you have to approach it. There were several youngsters at the matinee I attended and they all enjoyed the things kids enjoy. Namely, poop. When Mr. Popper (Carrey) receives the six penguins from his late father, an explorer/adventurer of some sort (never really explained), he names them on the fly. Loudy, Lovey, Sappy, Slappy, Pappy… I know the first two are accurate. He also names one Stinky. Stinky provides the main pipeline for the movie’s laughs by way of some timely flatulence and sudden bowel movements. Your kids will love it!
Waters’ movie also features the obligatory children’s theme of family comes first. Why it takes three screenwriters (Sean Anders, John Morris, and Jared Stern) to write such a cookie-cutter script baffles me. Normally the unique element of penguins would be an excuse, but they were basing the whole thing off of a book (by Richard and Florence Atwater) that was written 70 years ago. Really, guys? It takes three of you to come up with Stinky the gassy penguin? I digress. Mr. Popper is basically Fletcher Reede. Divorced, married to his job, loves his kids but fails to regularly demonstrate it. Fletcher Reede required a magic spell stripping him of his ability to lie in order to make him the father he never knew he always wanted to be.
Mr. Popper (first name, Mr., apparently) requires six CGI penguins. Spoiler alert: Mr. Popper becomes the father he never knew he always wanted to be, too.
Cookie-cutter can be just fine. The “Die Hard” franchise follows the same formula in every installment (Bruce Willis gets bloodied, uses his potty-mouth catchphrase once or twice, gets more bloodied, and saves the day). But they did add new elements in the most recent “Die Hard” flick (“Live Free or Die Hard”): Willis’ John McClane blew up a bad guy’s helicopter with a car he sent hurling through the air, and later defeated a freaking jet-fighter while driving recklessly in a semi on a quickly disintegrating freeway overpass! C’mon now! That was fresh, even if the rest of the established formula was followed closely.
“Mr. Popper’s Penguins” doesn’t bring anything new to the children’s comedy about the importance of family. Digging up Carrey’s shtick from “Ace Ventura” and “Liar Liar” feels like cheating. Relying on a CGI penguin that farts feels lazy.
Luckily, your 12-year-old probably hasn’t seen either “Ace Ventura” or “Liar Liar”, so “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” will seem brilliant! (Also, double my rating for your own purposes if you giggle when someone toots, or if you can still sing the whole “beans, beans, the magical fruit” song.)