Frankly, Zookeeper is better than it has any right to be.
Written for a lowest common denominator audience by a handful of writers [including Nick Bakay who voiced Salem on Sabrina the Teenage Witch], and competently directed by Frank Coraci [The Wedding Singer, Click], Zookeeper aims low and is redeemed by a mostly excellent cast and a rolling pace.
Basically, the story amounts to this: zookeeper Griffin Keyes [Kevin James] gets shot down when he proposes to his uber-gorgeous, uber-shallow girlfriend Stephanie [Leslie Bibb], and when she shows the vaguest interest years later, the animals in his zoo break their code of silence to help him win her heart – but we all know that she isn’t the woman for him. That would be his co-worker, Kate [Rosario Dawson]. The rest is details.
With Dawson and Bibb being the potential love interests for James’ Griff, we already know that the film is a fantasy, but the talking animals nail that to the floor. Most of the voice cast is excellent, but Nick Nolte should be singled out for playing Bernie the Gorilla, whom Griff coaxes out of an insular funk that’s been going on since he was physically abused by assistant zookeeper Shane [Donnie Wahlberg]. Ken Jeong has a few fun bits as Venom, the reptile guy [he’s funnier here than he was in Hangover 2 and Transformers 3 combined], but the rest of the human cast is pretty bland.
What makes the film work is that most of the animals have reasonably well developed personalities – with the exception of Donald the Monkey [who is pretty much Adam Sandler at his worst, wearing fur] and Mollie the Giraffe [Maya Rudolph tries, but Mollie just hasn’t got the requisite soul]. Bickering bears Jerome [Jon Favreau] and Bruce [Faizon Love] steal every scene they’re in and Judd Apatow is fine as cowardly Barry the Elephant.
So, anyway, the animals give conflicting advice [all of which Griff takes] and somehow wins the girl – over obnoxious fellow ex-boyfriend, Gale [Joe Rogan, going so far over the top that he somehow finds his way back into movie] – by going to his brother’s wedding reception with a spectacularly gowned Kate [fantasy, remember?], and both out performing Gale and Stephanie on the dance floor, and working a praise/insult strategy on Stephanie.
Of course, after he’s changed jobs to make more money, and is actually moving in with Stephanie, he realizes what an idiot he’s been – but it’s too late. Kate is about to leave to take a job in Nairobi!
None of these events is really a spoiler. These are exactly the kinds of riffs we see over and over again in low brow romantic comedies. The twists come from the animals who, in a reverse of the Doctor Doolittle movies, are the ones who talk to Griff – much to his amazement [at first, he thinks he’s hallucinating].
The animals decide to help Griff because he cares about them [spoils them, really], and once Joe the Lion [Sylvester Stallone] accidentally voices his frustration in front of Griff, well, what else could they do?
Zookeeper isn’t rife with great lines [the best one being a warning Griff gives Shane when he learns what he did to Bernie], but some of the visual gags are actually inspired [Griff and Bernie in a high speed/no speed chase; Griff and Bernie hitting TGIFridays; Griff trying to get comfortable on an exotic – and overpriced – chair Stephanie bought] and both Bibb and Dawson rock their roles.
As for James, he does a workmanlike job with Griff, the everyman character that he has been doing since he was a standup comic. There’s nothing new in the part, except for the guy’s job, but James invests him with enough heart to win you over – especially in the way that Griff and Bernie become buds.
Overall, Zookeeper hits more often than it misses thanks to its cast. It ain’t art, or even particularly bright fluff, but it gets the job done – almost like Griff at the zoo.
Final Grade: B-
Photos by Tracy Bennett/courtesy of Columbia Pictures