Hollywood leading men are finding solace in their pets. To dogs (Marley & Me), bunny rabbits (Hop) and, at a stretch, beavers (The Beaver) we can now add Mr Popper’s Penguins to the list of recent animal based solutions to middle-aged ennui at the movies. Using the name of a beloved children’s novel before altering its plot entirely, Mr Popper’s Penguins changes its titular bird owner from a poor housepainter to a rich property developer (Jim Carrey), and its storyline of a group of penguins trained for the circus to ones simply causing a series of embarrassing mishaps, as well as the inevitable melting of a cold heart. The result is an initially endearing, eventually tiresome retread of the wearisomely familiar reassessment of life’s priorities template.
Using a mixture of real penguins and CGI, Mark Water’s film initially makes good use of undeniably cute protagonists, with early scenes featuring penguins running into walls, flooding Popper’s modern New York apartment, and rather charmingly discovering the calming influence of Charlie Chaplin. Unfortunately they soon follow Popper to a work function at the Guggenheim Museum and, in the first of a series of dully unimaginative set pieces, turn its distinctive ramp into a giant waterslide in front of a feisty Angela Lansbury, whose Central Park restaurant is the key to Popper achieving promotion.
The choice Carrey will eventually face is blindingly obvious, and from here the endearing becomes the gratingly familiar. Soon Popper is turning his apartment into a winter resort, teaching his pets synchronised dance moves and saving them from an evil zookeeper, all in the name of discovering true happiness. The latter, inevitably, means reconnecting with the estranged children in the way that his own father never managed, and winning back his ex-wife (Carla Gugino), a process that includes gooey romanticism, quality time, and the indignity of Carrey attempting hip hop dance moves and text speak.
Playing Popper with a mixture of the hyperactive, contorting facial humour of his early work and the vacant, glassy eyed remorsefulness of his serious roles, Carrey is at least well cast. Opening the film by cynically manipulating an old man into selling him New York’s Flatiron Building, his combination of over the top physical humour and snarly unpleasantness is a faded reminder of the talent that enlivened dud material like Liar Liar more than a decade ago. Unfortunately, not even Carrey at his best could save what is ultimately a very dull confection.
That Popper’s trajectory from emotionally distant to open, loving father is entirely familiar is less unwelcome than the utter lack of imagination or humour with which it delivers its generic payoff, and while there is little here as objectionable as other recent animal-themed family films (take a bow, Hop), the director of Mean Girls and a still charismatic comedy presence should be able to deliver something a little more inspired. Hollywood might be trying to tell us that the answer to a midlife crisis is pets, not Prozac, but those behind the camera could certainly do with a little something to perk them up a bit.