Film review: Zookeeper

If we could all make like Dr. Doolittle and talk to the animals, they’d probably tell us off. We’re not very nice to them, after all.

However, according to Zookeeper, the new film directed by frequent Adam Sandler crony Frank Coraci and starring Kevin James, if we could talk to the animals, they’d tell us, quite plausibly, to pee on things and throw poop.

Although Coraci, who is responsible for such other one-man titles as The Wedding Singer and The Waterboy, is more likely concerned with fun than fact. His zookeeper in question is Griffin Keyes (James), a hapless, kindhearted caretaker who is beloved by all things feathery and furry.

In the theatre where I sat, both children and adults appeared to love Griffin, too, chuckling at the over-the-top way he (and his stunt-double) would fall face-down in the lion’s den or pull a porcupine quill from his cheek.

From King of Queens to king of the mall to king of the (enclosed, man-made) jungle, James is in his natural habitat as the unlikely hero. The actor has an endearing likeness to a gorilla with his rectangular head, short neck and hulking physique. He also has a penchant for physical slapstick, and being listed as a screenwriter on the film, it appears James has given his character most of the stumbles and tumbles.

Griffin’s biggest fall, though, is for Stephanie (Leslie Bibb), his beautiful but fatuous ex-girlfriend. At the start of the film, she rejects his marriage proposal because he’s, well, just a zookeeper.

Afraid that their so-called “hippo whisperer” will quit his job, the beasties at Franklin Park Zoo break their code of silence to teach Griffin about animal magnetism. An all-star cast serves as voices for the creatures including Sylvester Stallone, Sandler and Cher, oh my!

The animals mostly argue with each other or encourage Griffin to growl and “lead with your pudding cup” — probably the sweetest reference to that area that I’ve ever heard. Stallone and Cher are the old married lion couple, while Maya Rudolph is a singing, supervising giraffe. Meanwhile, Sandler’s monkey sounds like Sandler imitating Al Pacino imitating a four-year-old.

One of the tacit messages in Coraci’s picture is to treat animals, and each other, with respect, which is what the 1967 Dr. Dolittle championed, delightfully, in song. InZookeeper, however, this arrives on a more serious note; Bernie the reclusive gorilla (Nick Note) reveals abuse by the hands of another zookeeper, Shane, played by a sulky Donnie Wahlberg, who always looks like he’s chewing a mouthful of marbles.

As a result of Coraci’s sombre story treatment, Bernie rises above the other caricatures in the zoo; like Babe, the pig from another famed film where the animals are equally as verbose, he searches for acceptance and affection and finds it with Griffin and, bizarrely, T.G.I.Friday’s. (If you want to see apes take revenge for abuse, you’ll have to wait for Rise of the Planet of the Apes later this summer.)

Since you’ve already accepted the absurdity of talking animals, seeing Bernie singing to T-Pain or slow dancing at a chain restaurant is just the next step into the wild. As is watching Griffin literally apply his animal techniques to get the girl. It’s like A Night at the Museum but with less adventure, more romance and the same mischievous capuchin monkey.

The film’s supporting cast does the most with the on-screen time they have, including a real and refreshing Rosario Dawson as the veterinarian Kate, who has feelings for Griffin; Ken Jeong as Venom, the reptile expert who is more horny than slithery; and a chest-thumping, ridiculous Joe Rogan as Griffin’s rival for Stephanie’s love.

The script is cheesy (“Canadian bears are wild, very wild,” one beast brags about a former Kodiak consort) and the plot is predictable. But the fun, like in a zoo, comes from watching its inhabitants.

This review was published in the National Post July 8 2011.

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