Talking animals in movies isn’t a new idea; even as far back as 1959, audiences were treated to the unusual scenes of a talking canine in The Shaggy Dog. Since then, we’ve had classics such as Babe, Animal Farm and of course Alvin & The Chipmunks. So why should Zookeeper stand out above the rest? Well, it doesn’t. But its the familiar story, slightly edgy humour and animals with personality that make it one that shouldn’t be instantly dismissed as passable.
Griffin Keyes (Kevin James from Paul Blart: Mall Cop, er, fame) is a devoted zookeeper who gives extra attention to all the animals; essentially, he’s gained their trust but doesn’t fully know it. That is, until he attempts to woo back Stephanie (Leslie Bibb), his girlfriend from 5 years prior who rejected his marriage proposal. The animals, led by Joe the lion (voiced unsubtly by none other than Sylvester ‘Sly’ Stallone), decide to intervene and teach him their methods to attract the opposite sex which often end with disastrous consequences for Keyes. But when a lucrative job offer at his brothers car dealership arises, Griffin must choose what’s more important: changing every bit of his being and getting the girl of his dreams, or staying with the animals and doing the job he loves with people that care about him more than he ever could have imagined.
Whilst that story might sound as new as your grandma’s advice on dating and it’s rather obvious what the outcome is going to be, you can’t help but feel furious at his total blindness to the bigger picture. He takes a fellow worker on a date (Rosario Dawson, or “the girl from Clerks 2“), an apparently nice female who shares an interest in caring for animals, she clearly flirts with him and yet he’s so transfixed on the woman who dumped him. I know I’m looking far too much into this, and it’s a kids film, but it’s just a point that irritated me: was it bad scripting? Or really, really good scripting? I doubt it’s the latter.
Kevin James is no stranger to comedy: he was the star of hit TV sitcom The King of Queens, has had prominent roles in movies such as Hitch and Grown Ups and had the lead role in Paul Blart: Mall Cop (which actually beat Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino to the number 1 spot on its week of release, and was the first movie to make $100 million in 2009). His comedic talents are admittedly wasted here though, as he spends most of the time either falling over, crashing into things or acting embarrassingly outlandish, say, peeing on a dog because he was ‘forced’ to. The one liners and dialogue based comedy undoubtedly comes from the animals, specifically the monkey voiced excellently by Adam Sandler, who also produced the picture). I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a say in the scriptwriting process, because some of the gags are far too risqué for a PG rating. It never feels wholly aimed at a younger audience, but isn’t overly rude or crass; it strikes a fine balance between humour and bad taste.
The female leads are both equally great: Rosario Dawson radiates charm and there’s a real sense of chemistry between her and Kevin James in the wedding scenes. Leslie Bibb, last seen in Iron Man 2 as Christine Everheart, is quietly menacing as the initial love interest Stephanie, fulfilling the intention of being unlikable from the outset. Another excellent piece of casting is that of Nick Nolte as Bernie the Gorilla, who after being accused of attacking another ‘keeper (Donnie Wahlberg, as a character obviously) becomes reclusive and depressed. Keyes shows him the joys of TGI Fridays in what has to be the most blatent display of advertising in a movie so far this year.
What’s important to remember is that this is a family movie. I’ve read a few reviews giving it a negative rating, but one problem with critics today is they don’t seem to understand the phrase “target audience”, and expect every release to be either A) aimed at them or B) an exceptional piece of Iranian cinema chronicling the lives of two bakers who maybe, just maybe, run out of flour before the end of the day. Zookeeper is neither of these. Whilst not that much here for the mature cinema goer, it’s a fun, entertaining summer movie that will keep younger audiences entertained.