Zookeeper might as well be titled Paul Blart: Animal Cop. In this film, we are treated to yet another instance of Kevin James playing a shlubby, generally content guy forced to jump through mediocre hoops to impress a lady person. Only this time he is a shlubby zookeeper, and the hoops he has to go through are largely the construct of the animals in his particular zoo. These animals talk to him with voices that sound remarkably like popular celebrities. Their lips move with a kind of broken, blurry motion that resembles CG from two decades ago. And then there's the man in a gorilla suit. He looks like a man in a gorilla suit. And he's voiced by Nick Nolte.
None of these differences serve to define Zookeeper as anything but yet another barely-watchable Kevin James slapstick romp. If anything, they serve to make this movie far worse than even some of the more unbearable entries in James' ever-increasingly miserable oeuvre. As base and idiotic as Paul Blart may have been, at least it didn't have a monkey with Adam Sandler's mangled voice talking about throwing poop.
Not that that's even the worst Zookeeper has to offer. It has far more insidious things planned for anyone who dares lay eyes upon this thing. Before it can get to them, however, we have to learn more about James and his purportedly sad-sack life. The movie opens with a tragically (and, almost a little bit hilariously) failed proposal by James to his peculiarly beautiful girlfriend (Leslie Bibb). Five years later, he's still purportedly broken up about this, but you'd be hard-pressed to notice it as he dutifully and cheerfully goes about his day-to-day duties at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. He loves the animals, and it seems the animals love him.
Then his ex saunters back onto the scene, and suddenly he's a bumbling, fumbling mess, prone to stuttering and cold sweats. She inexplicably wants him back, despite the fact that he's still a zookeeper (which was apparently a big part of the problem to begin with), but he's too anxious and lacking in confidence to seal the deal. Suddenly, his animal friends want to help, so they start talking to him.
This is when Zookeeper takes a turn from merely being a sort of dull, generic romantic comedy into something otherworldly stupid. Talking animals is something we accept in our cinematic fantasies, but the immediacy and literalness with which James takes the advice of his animal friends--which involves, among other things, puffing out his crotch at random, saying mean things to everyone, and pissing on plants in fancy restaurants--makes you wonder if this movie isn't meant to be some kind of subversive tale of a man slowly losing his mind. Are the animals really talking to him? Is he going to end the movie in a straitjacket? Suddenly, there is intrigue.
Until you remember this is a PG family comedy, of course, and settle in to the notion that, no, the animals really do talk, and Kevin James is just going to keep doing every awful thing they say until he gets a girl and everyone is happy. And what they say is never not awful. The script, which is written by like seventeen different people, is largely bereft of jokes that do not involve Kevin James hitting his head on things and animals saying sassy people-type stuff. Clearly the voice cast is meant to do most of the heavy lifting, but by and large, they fail. Miserably.
The casting is mildly amusing in places. The idea, for instance, of Bas Rutten voicing a studly wolf who teaches James about the aforementioned peeing, is almost funny. Sylvester Stallone as a cranky old lion frequently emasculated by his wife (a nearly unrecognizable Cher) is also fitfully amusing. But elsewhere, things go terribly, terribly wrong. Maya Rudolph majorly tests the goodwill she earned in Bridesmaids with a gratingly atrocious voice for a neurotic giraffe. Somehow, Adam Sandler manages to out-grate even her, with a voice for his obnoxious monkey that can only suggest no one on the set had the balls to tell him "no" at any point during recording.
The live action cast is somewhat better, but they're still saddled with material that labors on hyperactive character traits over anything identifiably human. Joe Rogan is almost not annoying as Bibb's macho other ex-boyfriend (but eventually just becomes annoying), and Ken Jeong once again plays some version of Ken Jeong, making one wonder if the Razzies this year will just have a category for "Most Ken Jeong performance in a movie by Ken Jeong." Sadly, there is also Rosario Dawson, who, God love her, will try to bring her A-game in even the lousiest movies. She's another zoo employee, and meant to be the alternate love interest who flies right under James' radar. Except that she's about as innocuous as a diamond in a pile of monkey shit. She radiates personality in a role that seems decidedly lacking in any. She's the lone saving grace of this entire miserable ordeal.
But even Dawson can't make Zookeeper watchable. She's one actress against a menagerie of trying-too-hard celebrity voices and Kevin James' penchant for falling down and shrieking a lot. No one performance can salvage a movie that thinks a gorilla being fascinated by T.G.I. Friday's is hilarious, and that playing multiple Boston songs over the course of a movie set in Boston is somehow clever. Nothing can save Zookeeper from what it is: an exceptionally bad movie.
Trailer 2: Zookeeper
Product placement: It's not just for actual movies anymore. How much did TGIF contribute to the budget for this film?
The Zookeeper Trailer
Watch this trailer for Kevin James' latest comedy, and as you're watching it, remind yourself over and over again that a studio paid $3 million dollars for this script. Depressed yet?
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