No comedian of the past two decades has stretched himself and I don't just mean his face as much as Jim Carrey. Yet recently, it feels as if the karmic entertainment forces have been stretching him back to earlier days. His 2008 hit Yes Man had a warmed-over '90s quality (it was Liar Liar with a self-help twist), and though he gave an audacious performance as a gonzo gay con artist in the ersatz–Coen brothers indie I Love You Phillip Morris, the film went nowhere. Now here's Carrey in Mr. Popper's Penguins, all cartoon quips and geeky overbite grins, doing one for the kids.
At first, the movie looks like a standard Hollywood attempt to take a beloved children's book in this case, Richard and Florence Atwater's perennial grade-school charmer, published in 1938, about a housepainter and his menagerie of penguins and gloss it up into a too-brightly-lit slapstick vulgarity. Carrey plays Mr. Popper, now a New York real estate shark with a sleek slate-gray apartment, an estranged wife (Carla Gugino), and two kids. He's also got daddy issues (his father, a globe-trotting explorer, never had time for him, apart from their ham-radio chats). Just before Dad expires, he sends Popper a present: a live penguin who waddles out of a freezer crate. She's followed, days later, by another crate with five more penguins. Then they breed. It's just the intrusion of disorder that a control freak like Popper needs.
Carrey, eyes jutting open in mischief, can't really surprise us much anymore. He's become a domesticated anarchist, and here he's in his benignly wacked Bruce Almighty mode. His face is a bit more creased now, but those Silly Putty features are as wide-awake as ever, and he brings the movie something beyond his familiar nerve-jangled comic spirit: He infuses it with conviction and a hidden sweet spot of warmth. The penguin-poop jokes are as inevitable as they are stupid-funny. With, say, Eddie Murphy as the star, Mr. Popper's Penguins might have been a glorified paycheck contrivance. But Carrey is so naturally stylized that he coaxes the film's gentle, creature-feature insanity to life. He relates to those penguins, and so we start to plug in to the antic fun he's having. (Mr. Popper: ''Let's kill two birds with one stone.'' Penguin: ''Honk!'' Popper: ''It's a metaphor!'') As the animals win Popper over, he begins to lose his business bearings, and the result is a movie of infectious high-concept chaos.
It helps that the director, Mark Waters (Mean Girls), withstood the temptation to make the elegant, dot-eyed emperor penguins too cutely anthropomorphic. Yes, they do sit around and watch Charlie Chaplin films on television, but mostly they simply charm us with their all-dressed-up stately absurdity. They pop up at the Guggenheim Museum, where they disrupt a benefit by sliding around that endless curlicue corridor. If you can resist a scene like that one (I can't), then by all means skip Mr. Popper's Penguins. If, on the other hand, you can watch Popper's most trusted penguin finally get to fly and feel like you're soaring right up there with her, then you may just let this likable trifle whisk you back to childhood. B