One would think a movie about talking animals aimed primarily at children would be difficult to screw up, especially with Kevin James coming off a major hit in that demo with “Paul Blart: Mall Cop.” So “Zookeeper” probably is commercially bulletproof, despite offering barely enough comedy to populate a three-minute trailer. Ultimately, it’s a marketing pitch in search of a movie that proves punishingly flat, with even the slapstick so sparsely delivered as to replicate a long slog through the zoo, surrounded by fidgety kids, on a suffocating summer’s day.
Adam Sandler’s talking monkey counsels James’ zookeeper, Griffin, to fling poop at a problem, and as producers of this project (with James doubling as star and one of the five writers), that’s essentially what they’ve done.
Griffin is introduced as he lavishly proposes to his girlfriend, Stephanie (Leslie Bibb), who crushes him by rejecting the overture, saying that marrying a zookeeper isn’t what she envisioned. Flash ahead five years, and Griffin is still at the zoo and thrown for a loop when Stephanie appears at an engagement party for Griffin’s brother. Her return also alarms the animals, who love the big lug and hate the thought of losing him. So they band together to aid him in winning her back, even if that results in breaking “the code” barring them from revealing their ability to speak to humans.
Directed by Frank Coraci (a veteran of Sandler vehicles “The Waterboy,” “Click” and “The Wedding Singer”), the conceit creates an excuse to cast a lot of celebrity voices as the animals, including Sylvester Stallone and Cher as the lion and lioness, Sandler as the Borscht Belt capuchin and Nick Nolte as a taciturn gorilla. Once they’ve been outed for their vocal abilities, though, the movie pretty much just lies there, unable to exploit the idea.
The sequences with animals coaching Griffin on how to impress Stephanie rarely pop, and tend to be of the peeing-to-mark-territory variety. The only thing that fleetingly perks up the movie is Nolte’s great ape, which likely proves most valuable in creating a terrific product-placement opportunity with T.G.I. Friday’s.
On the downside, Griffin exhibits more chemistry with the simian than with either Bibb or Rosario Dawson (as a patient veterinarian he enlists to make Stephanie jealous). Then again, the fact that James’ character is presented with a choice between Bibb and Dawson is far less plausible than zoo denizens dispensing romantic advice.
Technically, the movie does a credible job anthropomorphizing the animals, but it’s nothing audiences haven’t seen a thousand times before in movies and especially commercials. Nor does it help that most of the people – including Joe Rogan as a romantic rival and Ken Jeong as a randy reptile expert – are even more cartoonish than the cage-dwellers.
Somewhat ironically, the crux of the story hinges on Griffin failing (in the eyes of his ex, anyway) to fulfill his potential, and based on James’ career arc, there’s something to that. Having demonstrated himself to be a more adept actor than many standups who make the transition to TV and movies, James has settled into a niche as an amiable, pratfalling clown in fare aimed at young kids and adults who find Pixar and DreamWorks animated fare too intellectually demanding.
It might be lucrative, but that’s hardly living up to anybody’s promise, man or beast.