Mr. Popper's Penguins ★★½

Don’t expect any surprises here, simply because there aren’t any. This film is strictly by-the-numbers fluff with a predictable story that is as thin as the paper on which it is written (screenplay by Sean Anders, John Morris, and Jared Stern). Most of the time, the movie feels calculated rather than genuine, and the ending turns out to be just as sugary as could be expected.

Nevertheless, "Mr. Popper’s Penguins" hardly ranks as an offensive film. Director Mark Waters keeps things moving along nicely, and thanks to its relatively short running time of 94 minutes, the picture actually ends up being a passable diversion that doesn’t wear out its welcome. Beneath its layer of obvious moral lecturing, the movie manages to strike a chord in the viewer with the always reliable, universal theme of becoming a better person by taking responsibility and by caring about others.

The antics that the six penguins—Gentoos, to be precise—engage in are mildly charming and make for a number of amusing moments, provided that one can overlook the inherent absurdity of it all. Unfortunately, the animals themselves have almost no personality beyond each penguin’s one distinguishing characteristic after which it is named (the penguins’ names are Captain, Nimrod, Loudy, Bitey, Stinky, and Lovey).

Playing Mr. Popper—not much of a challenge for him, I suspect—Jim Carrey turns in a relatively restrained performance that at least didn’t strike me as annoying; here, there is none of that manic, tiresome acting that Carrey has a habit of letting loose. Carla Gugino has next to nothing to do in the role of Amanda, Popper’s ex-wife. Stealing virtually every scene in which she appears, Ophelia Lovibond plays Popper’s assistant Pippi, who has a thing for words starting with the letter “P” (Pippi’s brief conversation with a police officer near the end of the movie hints at the beginning of an interesting relationship). Angela Lansbury brings a certain amount of gravitas to the picture with her small but good role as Mrs. Van Gundy. Clark Gregg’s supposed bad guy Nat Jones reasons and acts perfectly rationally, and one would probably side with him in real life.