Anyone who’s been to the zoo has considered the possibility that once all the visitors and the zookeepers go home the animals come out from their enclosures and talk about the day. And so while Frank Coraci‘s Zookeeper is kind enough to show us what that fantasy looks like it isn’t kind enough to show us much else.
In Zookeeper Kevin James plays Griffin Keyes who’s so in love with his girlfriend Stephanie (played by Leslie Bibb) that he doesn’t realize she’s terrible until he proposes to her and she says no because she doesn’t like his job. After the breakup Griffin focuses on his work and is totally aware of how he wishes he had someone in his life to care for him the way he cares for the wildlife at the Franklin Park Zoo. When the animals (being the astute creatures that they are) notice how badly their favorite zookeeper has been feeling since the demise of his relationship they decide to break their vow of silence to show their appreciation for him by sharing all the tips and tricks that have helped them all get mates. The imparting of this knowledge paves the way for Kevin James to regurgitate onto the audience all the talent for physical comedy he’s accumulated over the course of his acting career and it means Griffin spends the majority of the movie rubbing his back against a tree like a bear or peeing on a tree like a wolf because he thinks his ex-girlfriend will take him back if he asserted his dominance more.
One of the more skillful things the film does is give each of the animals their own personalities in a relatively short period of time and credit should be given to the actors who voiced them. Sylvester Stallone’s Joe the Lion was the leader of the group and his frequent lover’s quarrels with Janet the Lioness (voiced by Cher) will particularly resonate with parents. Adam Sandler’s Donald the monkey delivered some nice one-liners and unapologetically bragged about his opposable thumbs. Judd Apatow Maya Rudolph Jon Favreau and Faizon Love also provided worthy comedic contributions to the animal group but it was Nick Nolte’s role of Bernie the gorilla that particularly stood out. After an incident with an abusive zookeeper (strangely played by Donny Wahlberg) where Bernie gained the reputation of being dangerous he was extricated from his beautiful and open enclosure and dropped down into a cement pit to be punished over a misunderstanding. But even though Bernie was out of site and otherwise inaccessible to the zoo’s patrons Griffin didn’t forget about him and worked arduously to convince him that not every human is cruel by putting a yellow polo shirt on him and taking him to T.G.I. Fridays. Though completely random and almost irrelevant the sentiment was very close to nice.
But the movie’s biggest problem isn’t the fact that its animals talk or that Griffin listens to them without realizing he’s trying to win back a human by acting like a wombat. It’s that because Griffin’s first love Stephanie was a bad person filmmakers were burdened with concocting a new love figure for him (because like all protagonists he’s supposed to rediscover his self-worth and self-respect after it has been misplaced). The director acknowledged this challenge by manufacturing Rosario Dawson’s character Kate the eagle expert/veterinarian. Kate’s close proximity to Griffin at the zoo and possession of a slinky black dress meant she became his accomplice when he tried to use the skills the animals taught him to win Stephanie back at his brother’s wedding. Eventually it becomes clear that the audience is supposed to root for a union between Griffin and Kate but it’s an almost impossible task because Griffin barely has any screen time with Kate and because of all the talking animals going on there is no room for a relationship when the film is already busting at the seams.
Theoretically Zookeeper sounds decent. And for the most part the scenes where the animals are coaxing Griffin are actually enjoyable. But the framework of the film makes the plot unnecessarily complicated…which means not only do audience members not get enough of what they wanted but they also get a whole bunch of other things they didn’t sign up for.