Film Review: Zookeeper

A high concept—movie-star voices coming out of actual if digitally touched-up animals—falls almost as flat as star Kevin James doing pratfalls.

The chief human in Zookeeper is Kevin James as Griffin Keyes, a caretaker who loves his work with animals, who love him back. If only women did, or one particular woman, Stephanie (Leslie Bibb), who has dumped him because his job is neither professional nor upscale. James, who co-wrote and co-produced the movie (the latter with his pal Adam Sandler, who provides the voice for a cute capuchin) uses his ingratiating “Who, me?” everyman persona developed on TV’s “The King of Queens” and which transferred into financial though not critical success in the hit family comedy Paul Blart: Mall Cop.

Rosario Dawson, the harried yet stalwart railyard manager of Unstoppable, is also working to recent type. Here she is Kate, a supportive fellow zoo worker who shares Griffin’s love for the beasts and understands him better than he does. Maybe not as well as his charges, though, who have listened to his tale of a broken heart. You’ve got to tell somebody, and animals are safe. Until they start answering you.

So moved by his outpourings that they break their vow of not talking to humans (though they chat with one another in private when the zoo is closed), they decide to instruct Griffin. By following certain animal rules of mating, he will get his mojo, and the girl, back. That’s the plan.

In a movie designed mainly to please kids, their adult companions may delight in identifying the voices of some big stars: Sylvester Stallone as Joe the Lion, Cher as Janet the Lioness, Sandler as Donald the Monkey, and—no doubt he didn’t have to audition for the part—Don Rickles as the Frog. But they won’t like what can only be described as a reactionary message in how to get a woman in line, and keep her there. Bibb/Stephanie is on the receiving end, but at least she doesn’t have poop thrown at her, which is what Donald the Monkey advises.

Director Frank Coraci, who helmed Sandler's The Waterboy and The Wedding Singer, tosses together a series of disjointed gags (though he makes Boston, the real-life home of the Franklin Park Zoo, look awfully good). This is especially disappointing as there is a witty mini-prequel which sets up the action for the movie: a campy marriage proposal on a romantic beach setting that backfires big-time.

The other skits simply don’t work, like the central set-piece of a competitive dance at a wedding, or the “night out” with Bernie the Gorilla (just another one of the guys, voiced by Nick Nolte) and Griffin at a local T.G.I. Friday. Never work with animals or children, W.C. Fields famously said. But he never said anything about an animatronic gorilla using two men in an ape suit. According to the filmmakers, this creative concoction was required for heightened emotional interaction with Griffin.

Zookeeper takes a halfhearted stab at being a message movie about animal abuse, with a subplot centering on a mean, assistant zookeeper (Donnie Wahlberg). Yet this is at odds with some of the rumors surrounding the movie. Were any animals harmed during the making of the film? PETA seems to think so, as Tweet the Giraffe died right after delivering his star-turn. The use of Tai, the elephant so effective in Water for Elephants, was also questioned.

An animal movie might have been a lot of fun in the kid-friendly vacation months, a welcome breather from high-tech action films. Yet the kid-packed audience I saw the movie with alternated between being restless and silently polite, with only a few guffaws at Griffin’s belly flops. And none of the animals—should we call them animal hybrids?—even came close to topping the witty camel declaring “This is the screwiest movie I’ve ever been in” in Hope and Crosby’s Road to Morocco. You might say the same thing about Zookeeper, but for all the wrong reasons.