The Zookeeper is no Mr. Popper’s Penguins. On the continuum of live-action talking-animal films, it’s somewhat more emotionally resonant than the execrable Garfield: A Tale of Two Kitties, but less amusing than the airplane candy Dr. Dolittle.
The should-be-more-fun gag at the core of the film — made by Frank Coraci, director of Adam Sandler’s The Wedding Singer and Click — is that the beasts begin talking, and use their skill to give a neurotic, husky zookeper named Griffin (played by Kevin James) all sorts of animal-kingdom advice on mating. You see, Griffin is hopelessly obsessed with Stephanie, a superficial, skinny snoot (Leslie Bibb), and unaware of Kate, the comely veterinarian (Rosario Dawson) right under his snout.
The wolf tells Griffin to mark his territory, so he pees into a potted palm. A lion tells Griffin to separate Stephanie from the herd, so he cuts her off. A bear tells him to “lead with his puddin’ cup,” so he thrusts his crotch at her idiot boyfriend (played by a stiff, unfunny Joe Rogan).
Complain all you want about the success of chronic self-debaser Kevin James, but the man is gloriously game. His wedding proposal is brutally rejected in the first scene. Soon after, he’ll have a porcupine shoot quills into his face, and endure a brutal series of prat-falls that employ the thudding humor of his weight. When James (or his stunt double) smacks his head or thumps to the ground, you feel the surround-sound impact of his mortification. Often, though, he’s just overacting next to a robotic gorilla — so the transitions back into more realistic human-on-human scenes are, to be kind, unconvincing.
And the animals? They’re animated as well as a Geico commercial — and fall into some bland uncanny valley of boredom. But the beastly voice cast is so star-studded it would rival an episode of Dancing With the Stars, including Sylvester Stallone as the hen-pecked lion and Cher as his domineering lioness. (Judd Apatow makes the least sense as a scaredy-cat elephant.) The best? As a capuchin monkey who lords his opposable thumbs over all the other animals, Adam Sandler does a husky, garbled voice that recalls his most weirdo SNL goofiness: It’s like Gilbert Gottfried swallowed Gollum.
If pratfalls and silly voices are sometimes fun, nothing else works: Five screenwriters are credited, because no one writer can recall so many bland catchphrases. (The film’s best line is the monkey’s advice: “Throw poop at her.”) Other lines seem too tasteless for kids and too dumb for adults, like: “Canadian bears are born with an extra claw — and they know how to use it Canadian bears are wild.”
Who is this for? It’s a rom-com with talking animals, which certainly shouldn’t be a good signal for the viability of any date who wants to take you to see it. But probably somebody has to date the stunted man-child that’s become the signature character of this film’s production company, Happy Madison.
Zookeeper couldn’t be more forgettable, but one scene should make history in the product-placement Hall of Fame. After the tortured gorilla trapped in a cement cell confesses that he’s been dreaming of T.G.I. Friday's, Griffin springs the gorilla and hits happy hour in the film’s most elaborate set piece. It’s one of the rare moments in the film that feels loose and improvised — largely because it’s just James and a guy in a gorilla suit. It’s not genius, but it’s a genuinely absurd little bit of sketch comedy. It also might sell a few blooming onions.