Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 13, 2011)
After the surprise success of 2009’s Paul Blart: Mall Cop, Kevin James gets a second shot at “leading comedian” status via summer 2011’s Zookeeper. Griffin Keyes (James) works as the head keeper at the Franklin Park Zoo. He loves his job even though it costs him a relationship with his girlfriend Stephanie (Leslie Bibb); the materialistic girl just can’t see herself being married to a low-paid zookeeper.
Five years later, Griffin’s brother Dave (Nat Faxon) gets engaged – and his fiancée Robin (Steffania De La Cruz) invites Stephanie to the party. Stephanie shows renewed interest in Griffin, and he’s clearly hung up on her.
Dave pressures Griffin to leave the zoo and work at his car dealership, where he could earn tons more money. Griffin views this bump in pay as the only way to get back with Stephanie, so he strongly considers a change in career.
The zoo’s animals overhear these conversations and react unhappily to the prospective loss of their caretaker. They attempt to make him look like a hero in front of Stephanie but this goes awry. Out of disgust, Joe the Lion (voiced by Sylvester Stallone) accidentally slips and breaks the “animal code” when he shouts at Griffin.
Understandably, this freaks out Griffin, and he soon gets an education from the animals as the critters reveal that they’ve always been able to speak. They attempt to teach him how to win back Stephanie while they also try to keep him as their zookeeper.
While Blart was a low-budget cinematic afterthought that somehow managed to make a sizable $146 million – nearly six times its budget - Zookeeper came burdened with Real Expectations. It marked James’ first attempt at a solo lead role since Blart. In 2011’s The Dilemma and 2010’s Grown Ups, he worked with one or more other above-the-title actors, but Zookeeper offered just James and a bunch of not-as-successful talents.
With a take of $78 million, Zookeeper didn’t bomb, but given its $80 million budget – and prime summer release date - it disappointed. Maybe James does best when his movies come out at a schlubbier time of year like January and not during hot hot hot July.
Or maybe James just needs to make better movies. I looked over his filmography and couldn’t find a single good film in which he’d starred. I think James has real talent, but either he can’t pick quality projects or he just isn’t successful enough to receive “A”-list scripts.
I will say that I think Zookeeper offers a step up over the relentlessly mundane Blart. Not only didn’t that one prompt any laughs from me, but also I never even cracked a smile. Zookeeper failed to produce guffaws, but I chuckled a couple of times and saw mild humor in a few situations.
Actually, virtually all of the film’s relatively amusing sequences come from James’s performance, specifically when he becomes Bad Griffin. To get back with Stephanie, Griffin embraces his meaner, more materialistic self, and James gives us such an over the top take on a cocky, smarmy egotist that he manages to deliver some decent comedy.
Before and after those scenes, however, Zookeeper becomes a lot more forgettable. It comes across as rather disjointed, especially since it doesn’t appear to know what audience it pursues. With its cute talking animals, the film seems to embrace a kiddie crowd, and a lot of its jokes go down a juvenile path.
However, the movie’s story doesn’t make much sense for that audience. What self-respecting nine-year-old will care if Griffin manages to get back with his old girlfriend? Granted, I’m not sure what 44-year-old – self-respecting or not – would care about these flimsy characters and Griffin’s pursuit of the Obviously Really Wrong For Him Stephanie, but at least the plot offers themes/situations that would theoretically interest adults. Kids? Not so much, and I suspect they’d get pretty bored whenever the movie leaves the animals – which it does frequently.
Zookeeper also throws in some character choices that come across as odd for a kiddie audience. Take reptile specialist “Venom”, for instance. As played by Ken Jeong, he seems like a role better suited to a hard-“R” comedy; he’s a perverted weirdo who makes sexual allusions that are strange and out of place in a “PG” movie. Heck, Venom would be a bizarre choice for “PG-13”, but since Zookeeper goes with the family-friendlier rating, the role and Jeong’s presence become even less sensible.
All these comments may make it sound like Zookeeper will work better for adults than for kids, but that’s not the case. It seems to be a case of a film that attempts to be all things to all people: it wants its kids and adults to both enjoy it. Alas, it appears unlikely to satisfy either audience, as the “adult-oriented” elements are too dumb to work for the grown-ups.
The characters tend to be a big problem. From Minute One, it’s abundantly clear that Stephanie is wrong for Griffin, so it’s absolutely impossible for us to hope that Griffin will succeed in his quest to reunite with her. Not only do we know this won’t happen, but we don’t want it to happen. Unfortunately, the movie expects us to invest in Griffin’s efforts, so it loses points.
Of course, the movie also includes the Obvious Eventual Romantic Interest via Griffin’s co-worker Kate (Rosario Dawson). Also from Minute One, we can tell that she’s perfect for Griffin and we know that they’ll end up together. We don’t know how this will develop, but it’s as inevitable as could be.
I suspect my overview makes Zookeeper sound more coherent than it is. While the movie does focus on Griffin’s pursuit of Stephanie, it goes off onto too many tangents to deliver a clear narrative. Much of the time it feels like a bunch of little plot points vaguely linked together. The movie comes across as episodic and not especially logical.
It also ends up as much more complicated than it needs to be. At its heart, all Zookeeper wants to be is a silly movie about a fat guy and talking animals – why gussy it up with the relationship complications? Just make it about some corporation that wants to take over the zoo and Griffin leads the animals to stop them. No, that’s not a great plot, but it’d keep the movie’s focus more firmly on the animals and make more sense for a flick aimed at pre-teens.
I doubt it’d be funnier than the actual Zookeeper, though, as it seems clear there’s not a lot of comedic inspiration behind this effort. It delivers a disjointed, lazy farce without a whole lot of redeeming value.