Zookeeper (United States, 2011)

July 07, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Zookeeper Poster

Zookeeper is no Mall Cop. The 2009 comedy, Paul Blart: Mall Cop, may have been one of the most unexpectedly pleasant movie-going surprises of the past few years. It was better than it had a right to be and convinced audiences that, in addition to front-lining a television show, Kevin James could also carry a film on his own using little more than his natural penchant for physical comedy and his easygoing nature. Although James may have faltered in The Dilemma, it has taken a train wreck like Zookeeper to bring his motion picture momentum to a halt. A horrifyingly inept comedy, this plays to James' weaknesses, seemingly crafted as a rejected vehicle for Adam Sandler, who has his fingerprints all over every frame. In addition to providing voice work for a rude monkey, Sandler is a co-producer and one of his handpicked directors, Frank Coraci, is at the helm. There are few things worse than bad, unfunny Sandler projects, except perhaps bad, unfunny, neutered Sandler projects. The family friendly PG-rating (which comes with the territory for James after Paul Blart) reduces the cartoonish humor to a level where even the youngest members of the audience may be unimpressed. (Neither kids nor adults were laughing much at the packed screening I attended.)

There's a Hollywood axiom that the more credited screenwriters a movie has, the bigger a mess it is likely to be. This proves true with Zookeeper, which boasts five names in that category, including James and his King of Queens stalwart, Rock Reuben. The story is a mess; subplots blossom and die without point and with little resolution. The main story turns out not to be the talking animals at Massachusetts' Franklin Park Zoo but a tired romantic triangle among head zookeeper Griffin Keyes (James); materialistic Stephanie (Leslie Bibb), who rejected his marriage proposal five years previously; and veterinarian Kate (Rosario Dawson), whose inexplicable attraction to Griffin is the only thing keeping her from accepting a job in Nairobi. When an opportunity arises for Griffin to win back Stephanie from her current squeeze, the vile Gale (Joe Rogan - yes, the Fear Factor host), the animals break their code of silence and begin offering their best bud Griffin advice. He becomes friends with the uncommunicative zoo gorilla and uses tactics prescribed by the bears, wolves, and lions to embarrass himself on his quest to secure a mate. In the end, he figures out that his true love is Kate, not Stephanie (this is made so obvious by the clunky screenplay that it cannot be considered a spoiler), and seeks to get things right.

James can be a funny guy, but the lack of laugh-worthy material in Zookeeper stretches his comedic abilities past the breaking point. There are numerous pratfalls (Griffin smacking his head on a low-hanging metal bar, Griffin leaping and missing his landing point, Griffin decimating an ice sculpture, etc.), but few generate more than a polite, obligatory chortle or two. The romantic situation is so painful that every scene involving Griffin and Stephanie is strained and tedious enough to risk causing instant catatonia for some viewers. Those desperately searching for something positive to say about Zookeeper might note that there is evidence of chemistry between James and Rosario Dawson, but the filmmakers keep this in check by ensuring the two rarely share the screen (the wedding reception being the only significant exception, and perhaps the only worthwhile scene).

Zookeeper's "hook" is supposed to be the speaking animals, who treat Griffin like their personal Dr. Doolittle. It's unclear whether he's the only one who can understand them, and it really doesn't matter. Some well known actors lend their vocal talents: Nick Nolte as the gorilla, Sylvester Stallone and Cher as lions, Adam Sandler as a monkey, Judd Apatow as an elephant, and Jon Favreau and Faizon Love as bears. The bad thing about recognizable voices is that they can be distracting, and that's the case with Stallone and Nolte. One keeps expecting the lion to growl, "Yo, Adrian!" The "special effects" employed to have the animals' mouths form words might have been state-of-the-art 20 years ago, but they're outdated today, and the gorilla looks like a guy in the monkey suit that was abandoned after the 1976 version of King Kong. I guess CGI was too sophisticated for the technical crew.

In 2009, Paul Blart was followed to theaters by Observe and Report, Jody Hill and Seth Rogen's dark, R-rated perspective of the mall cop profession. It boggles the mind to consider what Hill and Rogen might do with the zookeeper vocation. Although there is no such project in the works, such a movie would almost have to be more enjoyable than the torturous excuse for a family film foisted upon us by James and his cohorts.

Zookeeper (United States, 2011)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2011-07-08
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1