Director: Frank Coraci
Runtime: 102 minutes
What is the point of giving Zookeeper a rating? There really is none. The people who want to see it will see it, the kids who its aimed for will eat up the fact animals are talking and singing and joking around, and the adults escorting them will at the very least chuckle when the raunchiness comes out to play. Its success is a foregone conclusion, just like that of its most kindred of spirits. Call it Night at the Franklin Park Zoo, call it Hitch 2: Mating Call—no really, you’ll have to as I’ve seen neither original—because that’s what it is. Meet 2011’s Cyrano de Bergerac, only instead of a large nose, the gorilla in the room is quite literally that. And now commences my exercise in futility.
It’s a little ditty about our titular zookeeper, (Why isn’t there a ‘The’ in the title? I’d understand if it was called Zookeepers), Griffin Keyes, or as I like to call him, Kevin James archetype. Griffin is a likeable guy, a bit of a goof, but full of heartfelt compassion. Willing to lay that muscle on the line with the woman he loves, an elaborate engagement plan is ruined by the would-be bride Stephanie (Leslie Bibb), a materialistic handful we know from the start can only be bad news for our hero. Well, everyone knows but him, of course, as a chance encounter five years later brings back all the feelings he let go of and plants the seed that he may be able to make it work again. Queue Stephanie’s own admission of wanting him back—overhead by the zoo animals in Griffin’s care—starting the quest for happiness. After all, who better to give advice than a couple lions (Cher and Sylvester Stallone), a monkey (Adam Sandler in a heightened state of vocal obnoxiousness), and a gorilla (Nick Nolte)?
The premise is perfect for family fare, cultivating a Dr. Dolittle scenario that will enrapture the kids and a love story to tug at the heartstrings of those sensitive enough to let it. These animals have known Griffin for eight years, heard his sob story about the ‘breakup on the beach’ for more than half of those, and realized he is the best caretaker they ever could have hoped for. So, when the chance presents itself to make him a hero by pulling an elaborate fake lion escape and attempted mauling of the damsel in distress, it appears a cinch until the hefty frame of the wannabe wooer stumbles and falls on its face once more. But if the opportunity was lost, another was gained through Joe the Lion’s frustrated slip of speech. Yes, these animals can talk and boy do they enjoy doing it. If they aren’t giving species specific advice on love—yeah, cause throwing poo and marking your territory with urine are major turn-ons—they are bickering like mad. Admittedly, I’d listen to Jon Favreau (Jerome the Bear) and Faizon Love (Bruce the Bear) argue for hours. Now I want to watch Made.
Zookeeper isn’t only about Griffin getting the girl, though; no it’s about him getting the other girl too. You know, the friend who is really fun and secretly attractive, but you don’t notice until you ask her on a fake date to make the stupid girl you stupidly want jealous? That one? Yeah, this film has her too. Her name is Kate, she’s the zoo’s veterinarian and eagle specialist, and she’s played by Rosario Dawson. So we watch the game, the wasted chemistry, and Griffin’s funny transformation from schlub to jackass—kind of like Joe Rogan, who plays Gale, Stephanie’s most recent breakup and makeup pleasure toy of testosterone. We’ve seen it all before and therefore hope Dawson slaps James in the face when he finally realizes what he left behind and secretly want Rogan to kick his butt because hey, that’s what happens in the real world. When zoo animals talked to my cousin Fred, he totally failed in his attempts to woo that ex-girlfriend who was always way too hot for him in the first place …
It isn’t all lost, however, because despite the trite romance at the center, there is also a warm tale of finding oneself and accepting who you are. Through the twists and turns of love, Griffin learns his bond with the animals is what matters most. It’s his friendship with Bernie the Gorilla that inspires him to be a better man, their night of TGI Fridays debauchery a highlight of the film, blatant product placement be damned. And any time you get creepy Ken Jeong being, well, Ken Jeong, as well as Nolte’s gruff voice to belt out Flo Rida’s Low, you’ve got something. Whether that something is forced laughter or legitimately special depends on just how cynical a disposition you’re in while watching the movie. I surprisingly bought into the fantasy for the most part, treating the proceedings as a small child would, basking in the absurd inanity of it all. Even the obvious physical stuff, like James on a reclining bike racing Rogan in traffic or he and Dawson soaring through the air on silk draperies, had their moments of cheap levity.
At the end of the day, though, no matter how much I would love to dismiss Zookeeper as Hollywood garbage only looking to cash in on impressionable children and our imbecilic nation of mindless drones, there is charm to the whole thing. James and Dawson are endearing—I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in anything I didn’t badly want to see his dreams come true—and Bibb and Rogen are smarmy chic. The inclusion of Donnie Wahlberg for some extra villainy, as well as a side story to help the paralleling of Griffin and Bernie, is definitely filler, but the payoff at the end makes the cliché worth it. And that is pretty much an all-encompassing summation of the film—when things are obviously contrived plot devices to drive home already heavy-handed ideas, there is somehow something to make it enjoyable in the end. I can’t say I’d enjoy watching it a second time, nor would I necessarily recommend it to friends, but I know the kids in the audience had a good time, so I guess I can’t fault it for putting a smile on their faces.
Zookeeper opens Friday, July 8th.
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