OK, there are worse movies than Zookeeper. But I didn’t see those this week; I saw Zookeeper. I can honestly say I wish I hadn’t. This is one of those things where you don’t want to really go for the jugular because the film’s heart is more or less in the right place. Well, maybe not. It may be a cynical cash grab that’s pretending to have its heart in the right place, but I’m giving it the benefit of the doubt that its good-natured boobery isn’t merely a pose. Problem is that this does nothing to make Zookeeper funny or clever or surprising or even mediocre. It’s the sort of movie, in fact, you suspect 4-year-olds will call “dumb.”
Here’s the set-up: Kevin James plays Griffin, the zookeeper of the title. He’s in love with Stephanie (Leslie Bibb), who is not in love with him—or really with anyone or anything other than a lifestyle she wishes to become accustomed to. Realizing that Griffin’s job isn’t likely to get her there, she dumps him, leaving him traumatized even five years later. Oh, he’s now “lead zookeeper” (though he seems to have no actual authority) and he’s happy enough with that. Plus, he’s working with pretty, nice, intelligent Kate (Rosario Dawson), who is obvioulsly attracted to him. At least it’s obvious to us, but then we know there’s no other reason for her to be in the picture.
It all goes to hell the minute Stephanie shows up and evidences renewed interest in him. Since this has so thrown him into a tailspin and made him consider taking a “better” job selling luxury sports cars at his brother’s dealership, the animals decide to break their “code of silence” and coach him in how to win Stephanie—presumably without leaving the zoo and leaving them to the mercy of mean zookeeper Shane (Donnie Wahlberg). It follows then that we will endure what feels like reels and reels of Griffin following disastrous dating tips from chatty, celebrity-voiced animals.
Now, I suppose there are those out there to whom this idea will appeal. How that will stack up in practice—watching Griffin trying to walk with his “puddin’ cup” thrust forward or mark his territory by peeing in a potted plant at a swanky restaurant (both should be hits with parents who have chidren with imitative natures)—is another matter. At least he never follows the advice of Donald the capuchin monkey (voiced by Adam Sandler) to “throw poop at her.” Then again, I’m not sure that would have worsened things all that much. You also have a pair of lions voiced by Sylvester Stallone and Cher, who ought to be funny, only they’re not—though at least they’re not embarassing like Maya Rudolph’s giraffe.
The best thing in all this—and the only thing keeping Zookepper from a half-star rating—is the relationship between Griffin and Bernie the gorilla (Nick Nolte). Sure, it’s implausible—a gorilla whose big desire in life is to go to T.G..I. Fridays—but I can cut a little slack on the believability scale in a movie about talking animals. In any case, it provides the film with its best and certainly most touching moments. Otherwise, you’re stuck with a movie you knew the outcome of from the onset. Granted, small children might not, but how interested are they apt to be in the romance aspect of the story? Rated PG for some rude and suggestive humor, and language.