Kevin James, joined by an impressive cast of voice talent, should be enough to set Zookeeper a cut above the rest. Only, Columbia Pictures’ new comedy involving a zookeeper and his rambunctious zoo animals simply isn’t a cut above the rest, as much as it wants to be. Coming out in theaters today, this movie is cute enough for the kiddos but will be tedious for the adults who aren’t so easily amused by silly jokes, physical comedy, or squabbling zoo creatures.
In Zookeeper, James plays the sweet chubster Griffin Keyes, animal caretaker extraordinaire. Griffin is a hapless romantic who is destroyed by his girlfriend in the first scene of the movie, after he proposes marriage and she dumps him. Five years later and he is still working at the same low-paying job at the zoo, finding joy in his animal friends.
Griffin is still single, and he begins contemplating quitting his job as a zookeeper to do something more exciting and high-paying, like selling expensive cars, so he can catch and keep a beautiful woman. Then when gorgeous model ex-girlfriend Stephanie (Leslie Bibb) comes back into his life by chance, Griffin discovers he still has feelings for her, but he doesn’t think he has a prayer of getting her back.
The zoo animals overhear Griffin’s possible plans of defecting and they band together to help him win Stephanie’s heart so he’ll stay at the zoo. They break their usual code of silence to help Griffin out, making him think he’s going a little insane. It turns out Griffin isn’t very smooth with the gals, and his animal friend’s each give him their own brand of courting dos and don’ts.
The story concludes just about how you think it does. Griffin uses his animal friend’s advice, and ends up landing his wish. Once he gets it, he realizes he’s become someone he doesn’t want to be, and he must make some tough decisions.
Zookeeper has something to offer a younger crowd. James does excel at the slapstick-style humor, and is heavy (no pun intended) on the physical comedy. Kids will probably enjoy his shenanigans, and the way the animals talk and interact will also please a less-experienced crowd.
There are elements to the story that are cute and uplifting, and of course it teaches a great lesson on being who you are and loving who you are. But what the story lacks is any emotional depth, or even a level of humor that can be enjoyed by post-adolescents. Also, and I feel this way about many big budget movies, the pairing of dorky-looking or Joe Everyman actors with gorgeous model-turned-actresses is simply ludicrous, and it takes any possible believability re the romantic elements and flings it out of the window.
Then there was the CGI. The zoo animals weren’t CGI for the most part; they were live-action with some CG manipulation. This was most certainly a better idea than to ruin them with complete animation (especially given the pedantic CG effects detectable). The mouths and faces of the animals are played with digitally to give the real animals human-like emotions and mouth movements as they talk. There were some other touches here and there to get certain tricks done, and in general I didn’t think the manipulation too detracting, and in fact preferred it to a more extensive CG presence.
The only major flaw I found quite detracting was the facial manipulations of Bernie the Gorilla. While the other animals were believable enough, and lip and jaw movements were bordering on natural, it looked like filmmakers went old-school on Bernie. He literally looked like a man dressed in an ape suit, which is never a good thing in this day and age, and especially compared to the authenticity of the other zoo animals. When his face moved as he spoke it looked like those animatronic apes from Congo, or like the cheap animatronic characters that sing and dance for tokens at Chuck E. Cheese’s.
That being said, I think the voice casting completely bizarre. Many of the voice actors are iconic in their own way, with Sylvester Stallone, Nick Nolte and Cher leading the pack. But that is one of the big reasons they make lousy voice actors. Each of the above-mentioned actors has a certain unmistakable voice, with unique cadences and oft-mimicked styles (ok, maybe Nolte isn’t as mimicked as Sly or Cher). But with Stallone’s deep slurring voice as Joe the Lion, and Cher’s deep cottony vocals for Janet the Lioness, I felt like I was in some bizarro tranny puppet show. Not to mention Nolte’s voice, which is so gravelly and slurred that it was hard to make out what he was saying half the time as Bernie the Gorilla.
The other animals were voiced by comedic talents Adam Sandler, Jon Favreau, Faizon Love, Maya Rudolph and Jim Breuer (and no, he wasn’t a goat). While none of them stood out as exceptionally strange or irritating like Nolte, Cher and Stallone, they all kind of sounded the same and melded together in one annoying, whiney Brooklyn-accented growl.
James co-wrote the script for Zookeeper, and his character is very reminiscent of Paul Blart, from Paul Blart: Mall Cop (which James also co-wrote). When the story gets silly, James relies on his sweet charm and physical humor to pass it off. The problem is James always plays this same kind of characters, and his performance doesn’t feel like a new take on a fresh character, but a Paul Blart who rides around on a golf-cart instead of a Segway.
I understand what James finds funny, but it just isn’t that funny, and it’s certainly not fresh. Also, his best friend in the film is my least favorite character, Bernie the Gorilla. Bernie looks the least authentic of all the zoo creatures, and Griffin and Bernie’s hi-jinx come across less funny and more ridiculous than anything else in the film (including Griffin having a model girlfriend).
Rosario Dawson plays the down-to-earth Zoo doctor Kate. She’s not overtly funny, but she does come across as genuine. Bibb proves her comedic acting chops as vapid model Stephanie. Her Stephanie comes across insecure, but with enough presence that she is definitely the character you’ll love to hate. Her ex-boyfriend and Griffin’s competition is played by Joe Rogan in a strangely over-the-top performance that always seems a little off. As if he is trying too hard to be funny. Ken Jeong (The Hangover) has a small role, and as usual his quirky sense of comedic timing makes him both weird and compelling.
Frank Coraci is the director of this rather silly spectacle, and his past film projects prove that he’s not stranger to the silly Sandler-style comedy. In fact, he directed Click, The Waterboy and The Wedding Singer, which all starred Sandler. Instead of developing any atmosphere or even going for imaginative directing techniques, Coraci relies on silly music montages to establish mood and suggest friendship/bonding.
I’m not sure Zookeeper could have been any better, with James’ signature all over it and some strange miscasting of voice roles. It’s a family film, but the laughs will be mostly from the pre-pubescents. Poop-flinging jokes abound, and while there are some good overall messages, the Zookeeper is a molded comedy with little wit to recommend it.