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Mr. Popper's Penguins

I could probably come up with a better pan for Mr. Popper's Penguins than "flightless and foul," but that would entail expending more creative energy on the film than its makers did. Directed by Mark Waters (Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, The Spiderwick Chronicles) and based on a 1938 children's book by Richard and Florence Atwater, it is so empty and artificial and formulaic that if I didn't know better, I would have pegged it as a very cynical parody, or perhaps a film within a film about some desperate mafioso's questionable money-laundering scheme.

Jim Carrey, looking tired, and perhaps a little embarrassed, plays the title role of an arrogant, self-absorbed businessman who is taught a variety of valuable life lessons by a sextet of penguins. The penguins, bequeathed to Mr. Popper in his neglectful father's last will and testament, each exhibit a single personality trait, which immediately makes them more emotionally complex than the film in which they appear.

They're assigned names accordingly: there's Captain, the leader, Loudy, the screamer, Lovey, the hugger, Bitey, the biter, Stinkey, the farter, and Nimrod, the stumbler. I only wish this functional naming scheme were extended to the rest of the characters in the film - i.e., Clark Gregg is Nemesis, Carla Gugino is Motivation, Angela Lansbury is Conscience, and so on. If anything, it would have allowed the filmmakers to excise a healthy chunk of dialogue, which, in the case of Mr. Popper's Penguins, only exists to punish the brain.

The film boasts three credited screenwriters among its crew. Though I'm not privy to each writer's specific contributions, I imagine their duties were divided in roughly this fashion: 1) scrub the story of all imagination or wit; 2) remove any deviations from pat Hollywood formula; and 3) cram it with as much toilet humor as the MPAA will allow in a PG film. You'd think that a single writer could have mangled a beloved

children's book just as convincingly, but you'd be wrong: This kind of

debacle requires a team effort. rated this film 1 1/2 stars.