Early on in “Zookeeper,” Sony’s latest commercially craven piece of garbage from Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison production company, an animal sees two bears fighting. Her response is, “They look like two bean bag chairs!” Ignoring the idea that this character, a giraffe, has probably never even seen a bean bag chair, this is a brilliant line -- mostly because it reveals the true instincts of the six (six!) writers tasked with bringing this story-less hook to the screen.
This is a film made for children who, emboldened by their parents, are proudly more accustomed to their bean bags (or couches) then they are any concept of nature. When kiddie pictures were more rare (and not, roughly, half the marketplace -- yes, the other half are superhero movies), they wouldn’t make it through the pipeline without a strong creative voice behind the film and/or a simple, easy-to-learn lesson. Because this film is directed by non-talent Frank Coraci ("Click," "The Waterboy"), it’s easy to see that there is no nutritional value in this boy-chases-girl story, as the animal stars could have easily been replaced by their real-life equivalents, lying on recliners, screaming their dialogue while counting money. If “Zookeeper“ were titled “Grown Ups 2,“ kids would probably learn the same lessons about zoology. Even “A Night At The Museum” managed to impart cursory lessons.
Don’t worry, though, your child won’t ever develop the hunger to respond to this cynical claptrap with rebellion. Because it’s about being coddled -- a development not specific to children’s films. “Zookeeper” is another in a long line of kid flicks that promises one must “be themselves” as if that was such a difficult motto to express, particularly because of its coded message, that being the idea of self-improvement is a myth. A thinking audience is not an audience that spends $10 on a ticket to a Happy Madison production.
Kevin James plays a zookeeper with a heart of gold and a need for love, an often-sweet guy with a job that requires immense compassion. He’s also an embarrassing social retard, who, once he hears animals speaking, decides to take all their advice regarding chasing girls, tips that involve jumping up and down at strangers and urinating in public. We are also to believe animals have hid the thrilling possibility they can speak English from all of humanity until Kevin James needed to get laid.
James is pursuing Leslie Bibb, a cold shrew who rejected his marriage overtures five years ago and now does yoga and sponsors club nights with supermodels. Because she has culture, of course, we are meant to hate her. She suddenly develops a slight interest in him again, an arbitrary plot development snuffed with the return of a former boyfriend (Joe Rogan). In the meantime, James is getting stares from co-worker Rosario Dawson resulting in the two women fighting over Kevin James. Now you know.
To entice Bibb (even intentionally, still the least likable female performance of the year), James tries to be someone he’s not, even attempting to leave the zoo for a car dealership while adding suits to his wardrobe. The idea of there being some sort of evil in selling an expensive car to someone who can’t afford it is hilarious coming from a film that stops for a good ten minutes to feature an extended TGI Fridays commercial. Not to say James’ pursuit of such materialism isn’t in vain, but maybe the guy could also try pulling himself up by the bootstraps a little and giving something the old college try? Maybe, hm, trying to avoid doing an extended Cirque de Soleil routine at his brother’s wedding and breaking the bride’s ankle? And, of course, his weight wouldn’t be an issue if Frank Coraci and company didn’t love filming him stumbling, tumbling and falling off furniture and surfaces that would support a more able-bodied person. As such, James’ character arc is null, the sort of narrative laziness that makes “Shrek” look like “Ratatouille.”
“Zookeeper” gained a bit of publicity months ago when the film was promoted from an off-season spot to the heart of summer due to tremendously high audience polling numbers. The fervent response is likely due to the presence of the celebrity-voiced talking animals. Amidst several comedians performing a shtick, at least Sylvester Stallone sounds lively playing one-half of an arguing lion couple, though his pairing with the voice of Cher seems incongruous regarding its pop culture notability (and any positives that arise from this casting is nullified by Stallone belting out “More Than A Feeling”). Nick Nolte shows up as the voice of a sullen gorilla, playing the shell-shocked beast like a serious version of his “Tropic Thunder” character. He attempts to add a bit of edge to the material, but then they also fit him with a t-shirt and make him rap. If you’ve ever wanted to hear Nick Nolte’s rasp belting out Flo Rida’s “Low,” then at least “Zookeeper” can help you cross something off your bucket list. [D-]