Kevin James’ “pet” project has finally hit theatres after years in development. James’ Mall Cop was a surprise hit with family audiences and a bust with critics, and this Zookeeper will undoubtedly repeat that familiar pattern. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Kids like talking animals - who doesn’t? And the story is sweet and unchallenging. But it’s not Gone with the Wind.
Zookeeper isn’t the best comedy ever made, but it may have the most heart. James has nurtured his “talk to the animals” outing with a real passion and he got some pretty impressive stars to act as the animal voices.
Adam Sandler (who produced) is especially hilarious as Donald the monkey, and joins Sylvester Stallone, Cher, Nick Nolte, Judd Apatow, Jon Favreau, Faizon Love, Maya Rudolph, Don Rickles and many more. James has some cool friends. Stay for the credit roll song jam of More Than a Feeling, hear Sly belt out the lyrics in the character of a lion.
James is Griff, the zookeeper, who was dumped hard by a girlfriend five years earlier. He was humiliated because he’d planned fireworks, a Mariachi band and a message in a bottle for the big ask. He was turned down flat and his confidence was shot and he hasn’t had a date since.
Out of the blue, “she” shows up and goes out of her was to interest him. She’s still with someone, but obviously hedging her bets. Griff’s co-worker Kate (Rosario Dawson) is a good friend and encourages him to pursue Stephanie (Leslie Bibb) if it makes him happy.
Meanwhile it’s all happening at the zoo. The animal characters keep a close eye on what happens to Griff, their favorite, and discuss it all with voices when the humans aren’t around. And Griff’s dealing with a seriously depressed Gorilla (Nick Note) who leads his life in a viewless concrete enclosure – nice touch for increasing awareness about the plight of caged wild animals.
And Griff must reign in Shane (Donnie Wahlberg) who is cruel to the animals.
Griff’s getting nowhere fast with a Stephanie and decides to launch a full scale assault on her heart with help from Kate and the animals. And to coincide with his assault, the animals start speaking. They know a lot because they listen and gossip and they have plenty of advice, “man up”, “pee in front of her”, “walk like an ape”, “bellow”.
Griff’s friendship and efforts with the Gorilla encourage the animal to come out of himself – literally – they go for dinner at a chain restaurant where he’s a huge hit with the ladies. There are some genuinely funny sequences here and some trumped up but cute car chases.
This isn’t the pinnacle of filmmaking but the kids watching at a screening I attended were howling with laughter. It’s a kid hit and compelling enough for the parents who will realize it’s not aimed at them. The romance becomes a lesson in authenticity and loyalty and that’s a good thing. I’d also like to offer a ****Ken Jeong alert***** as Venom, the senior zookeeper who adds some fun and flavor.
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35mm family comedy
Written by Nick Bakay, Rock Reuben, Kevin James, et al
Directed by Frank Copraci
Open s July 8
Runtime: 104 minutes
MPAA: Rated PG for some rude and suggestive humor, and language