Zookeeper epitomizes the lazy, stale, formulaic family film. It treats its audience like buffoons and makes its leading man frequently look like one. I must admit, however, that I was a bit relieved to discover that the movie is more calmly stupid - going about its talking animals high concept in a relaxed, easygoing manner - than aggressively stupid, as most of its previews suggested.
Part Dr. Dolittle, part Night at the Museum, part Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Zookeeper is not only derivative of those movies, but basically every Kevin James or Adam Sandler movie you've seen the last two decades. James stars as Griffin Keyes, a lovable, clumsy zookeeper (is there any other kind?) whose marriage proposal gets awkwardly rejected by his girlfriend Stephanie (Leslie Bibb). Fast forward five years later, and Griffin's life is thrown into turmoil when he runs into Stephanie again at his brother's engagement party. When he threatens to leave the zoo, the animals decide to break their silence and speak to him in an attempt to help him win back his lady love.
Certain expectations flow from that concept. Most are met, no matter how low they might be. On the other hand, in a show of remarkable restraint, I'm pretty sure there were no animal farting jokes. The animals are all voiced by a bunch of A-list stars, including Adam Sandler (a monkey), Sylvester Stallone (lion), Cher (lioness), Denis Leary (wolf), and Judd Apatow (elephant). Their dialogue consists mostly of puns on various animal traits. Shakespeare, it's not.
Midway through, Zookeeper jettisons its talking animal storyline completely and instead turns into a lame romantic comedy, featuring one wedding event after another and Griffin's ill-advised stint as a car salesman. I guess the filmmakers deserve some props for trying to move past the high concept and turn the focus on James' character. It's a decent stab at substance, but it's executed in such a ham-fisted, unoriginal way that it never proves effective. And can someone tell me: in what world does Kevin James have Leslie Bibb and Rosario Dawson (as the back-up girl he never knew he loved. Until now.) fighting over him?
My 3 year-old son definitely did not appreciate the change-up. After about a half-hour of the romantic comedy nonsense, he turned to me and asked, "Dad, when do the animals talk again?" Zookeeper is built around talking animals, and on that front, it fails to deliver. To add insult to injury, it relies too heavily on an animatronic gorilla (voiced by Nick Nolte) rather than real animals. The animatronic work here is terrible - this looks like something out of the early '90s (Baby's Day Out, Ed). Haven't animatronic monkey effects advanced at all over time? Is that too much to ask?