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Movie Review: Zookeeper (PG)

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MPAA Rating: PG. Appropriate for ages 7 and up. Profanity is barely a factor—there’s one use of the swear substitute “fricking” and a conversation about “pee pee”. Dudes sometimes square off and threaten each other, but violence mostly takes the form of cartoonish slapstick and horseplay. Mild bathroom humor (see above) will get some big guffaws from youngsters of all ages. The boy-girl dynamic is sweet and sexless; the only notable inappropriateness comes from super-character-actor Ken Jeong, who plays a snake handler with a leering gaze and a poor sense of personal space. Finally, it’s worth noting that there is hardly an animal featured here that wouldn’t bite, crush or disembowel you if you stood within conversation range in real life—something to bear (pardon me) in mind on your family’s next safari, camping trip or zoo outing.

Ideal Husbandry

Talking with the animals breeds some wild advice for a zookeeper in love

By Jared Peterson

In Zookeeper—fingers crossed, the last talking-animal film EVER—Kevin James plays Griffin Keyes, chief caretaker at a Boston-area zoo. The film opens with Griffin asking Stephanie (Leslie Bibb), his exceptionally pretty and therefore predictably shallow girlfriend, to marry him. Stephanie painfully rebuffs his proposal; she loves him but wants someone less… zookeepery. Cut to five years later. Griffin is still single and still at the zoo—where he thrives and clearly belongs, but struggles with the good-natured prodding of those who would have him follow a more traditional path. Re-enter Stephanie, recently broken up with a self-important douche (Joe Rogan) and ready to get back together with Griffin, or at least take another pass at changing him.

Stephanie’s reappearance spurs the zoo’s permanent residents to action. In their attempt to stage a situation where Griffin can impress her, the animals inadvertently spill their secret: they can talk! Griffin freaks, briefly, then accepts their help in attracting a mate. Neither he nor the animals recognize, of course, that Griffin’s true soulmate is right in front of him—it’s Kate, the zoo’s resident vet, played by Rosario Dawson. (Does anyone know if she’s seeing someone? I’m just asking.) The rest of the film is taken up with the standard complications, made worse by disastrous schemes culled from the Wile E. Coyote School of romantic gestures. Animals, it turns out, know very little about dating.

Zookeeper had five screenwriters, which always means trouble. Parts of the film demonstrate the familiar weaknesses of committee planning, and a couple of comic set pieces are awkwardly crammed into the film’s structure, as though someone had misfiled them or forgot to convert from back from metric. Director Frank Coraci, helmer of several Adam Sandler vehicles, loses control of this vessel a few times, most notably in the frenetic final chase scene. (Now how is that a spoiler? Of course there’s a chase scene.)

I’ll say it again, though: I like Kevin James. He’s a gifted physical comedian and an unlikely but generally appealing leading man. In “The King of Queens”, Hitch and the not-entirely-unenjoyable Paul Blart: Mall Cop, James has shown that he can win an audience; but his luster fades as the stories approach the ridiculous. (And I’m not talking about the implausibly hot women that always seem to vie for his characters’ attention, which is less a statement about inner beauty than about box office calculus and the continued dominance of the male mind in today’s movies.) James is a pro, though, and he doesn’t pull any punches or pratfalls here—and there are some doozies. Also making the best of it are Bibb and Dawson, both of whom are lovely and lively and willing to play along.

The burdens of this beast of a film lie with the celebrities providing the animal’s voices. Their characterizations go from tolerable (Jon Favreau and Faizon Love as a pair of bickering bears) to terrible (Sylvester Stallone and Cher as a lion and lioness settled into marital stubbornness) to tragic (Nick Nolte, sounding like the verbal version of his mug shot, as a brooding, isolated gorilla with a taste for freedom and T.G.I. Fridays). The rest of the menagerie leans toward the derivative—Sandler does his goofy Gilbert Gottfried; Maya Rudolph does her “what-what!” Whitney Houston; martial-arts actor Bas Rutton does what feels like an impression of Antonio Banderas doing an impression of Bas Rutten. There’s nothing new or inventive, and certainly nothing very energetic—most of the performances sound like they were knocked out before lunch on a Friday afternoon.

In short, most involved seem to know that this little subgenre is played out. I mean, aren’t we done with talking animals? I certainly am. Care is always taken to assure us that “no animals were harmed in the making of this picture.” That’s all fine and good, but what about us humans? We’re the ones who have to suffer as monkeys and bears and ostriches spout sassy rejoinders while meddling playfully in the lives of their so-called masters. Ugh, it’s over—trust me, please.

However… all of this having been wearily said, I’m honor-bound to say that the crowd at the advanced screening, mostly families with youngish kids, seemed to really enjoy themselves—and no one required medical attention or counseling afterwards. That and that alone lifts Zookeeper above the 2 Kernel level.

But a final warning: As long as we keep feeding these animals, they’ll keep coming back. If we as an audience play dead, maybe they’ll go away.

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