By Matthew Huntley
July 19, 2011
It took six writers to pen the screenplay for Zookeeper and I’m willing to bet they weren’t always in sync with one another. This is a comedy, and there were times when I found myself laughing and responding to the fairly inspired material. Yet there were others - too many others - that had me shaking my head and cringing.
Why such different reactions? The rumor going around is the filmmakers and studio never determined if Zookeeper was meant for kids or adults. After seeing the movie, it’s easy to understand why, since there are jokes that cater to both. But they don’t always gel, and so the movie ends up being a mixture of some pleasantly amusing moments followed by some head-scratching stupid ones. Unfortunately, the latter dominates.
Kevin James is perfectly suited (and built) to play Griffin Keyes, a zookeeper for the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. The animals adore him and don’t want to see him leave, which is why they break “the code” and talk to him in plain English. Donald the Monkey (voiced by Adam Sandler) tells him that animals have always had this ability but never believed humans could handle it. They’re probably right, because the moment Griffin hears Joe the Lion (Sylvester Stallone) speak for the first time, he runs off screaming. This actually happens twice in the movie and the second time Griffin hits his head and falls down. There are at least a half dozen moments like this, and just as in Paul Blart: Mall Cop, the movie isn’t shy about resorting to the old fat guy falls down and goes boom routine.
Because he’s always been nice to them, the animals offer Griffin advice on how to win back his ex-girlfriend, Stephanie (Leslie Bibb). She dumped him five years ago during his marriage proposal because she couldn’t accept him being a zookeeper (the guy hired a Mariachi band on the beach and everything). But when she sees him at his brother’s engagement party, she thinks Griffin is still cute and has the potential to be something greater.
Of course, Stephanie is just one of those stock movie characters whose only purpose is to come off as rude and superficial, concerned only with things like her image and reputation. She’s an obvious jerk but Griffin thinks he’s in love, even though Kate (Rosario Dawson), a zoologist and a woman of substance, is right in front of him. No points if you guess who he ends up with.
The movie plays as a series of scenes in which the animals tell Griffin what to do and he tests their theories out on Stephanie. Some of these are funny, as when the two bears, Jerome (Jon Favreau) and Bruce (Faizon Love), teach Griffin how to walk with presence and virility. The back-and-forth banter between the bears is punchy and delivered with energy by the two voice actors, and James takes it all the way home with his walk and growl.
James’ commitment and straight face manner also work when he takes Bernie the Gorilla (Nick Nolte) for a night out at TGI Fridays. Despite this sequence’s incredulity, the movie believes in it and it comes off as good-humored and charming.
Another funny moment occurs when Sebastian the Wolf (Bas Rutten) encourages Griffin to mark his territory in public and tells him women judge a man by the way he pees. Surprisingly, the scene pays off at the zoo but then the movie takes it one step too far. It cuts to Griffin peeing in a planter at his brother’s rehearsal dinner and only a waiter notices him. Now, I ask you, what man would do such a thing, even if he was told to do so by a talking wolf? And how could the movie, or the surrounding characters, not acknowledge Griffin’s behavior as something more unusual? The whole scene feels awkward and just sort of ends without explanation.
The movie has too many moments like this, where the characters act bizarrely and other characters fail to notice. They’re supposed to be funny, but it’s as if the set ups were written by one set of writers and the payoffs by another, resulting in mixed, uneasy reactions from the audience. One that stands out comes when Griffin borrows a car belonging to Venom, played by Ken Jeong. After The Hangover Part II, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and now this, Jeong should consider being more selective with his movie roles. Venom tells Griffin he can borrow his Mustang Cobra but that Griffin must reach into his pocket and fish out the keys himself. Is this meant as latent homosexual humor? What type of response did the filmmakers think it would garner in a PG-rated movie? Did they expect kids or adults to laugh? I’m not sure they knew.
Zookeeper is not a good movie, but it’s more of a missed opportunity than an all-out disaster. In the end, it’s more stupid than funny and contains more obligatory scenes than original ones. The plot is on auto-pilot, which was to be expected, but I think if the movie had chosen a more definitive audience to cater to, it might have been able to shine brighter in that particular capacity. As it is, it doesn’t really shine at all.