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July 9, 2011

If you’re going to aim a movie at kids, with taking animals and an easily-digested cookie-cutter story painted in primary colors with broad brush-strokes, for all our sakes stick to your premise.  Zookeeper ignores this simple advice and spends huge stretches of time with no talking animals, few pratfalls, and lots of boring dialogue.  The very least a movie like this should do is capture the rugrats’ attention enough to shut them up for a few hours, and it can’t even get that right.

Five years ago, Griffin Keyes (Kevin James) was dating Stephanie (Leslie Bibb).  He even proposed to her — absent any shared interests it seems clearly predicated on her appearance — in an ornate horseback-on-beach setup, and was turned down flat for being a mere zookeeper.  Now he’s the head zookeeper of Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo, and rather an expert at what he does.  And yet he’s never gotten over her.

But Stephanie comes back into Griffin’s life as his brother’s wedding approaches, complete with her latest ex-boyfriend, the colossal douchebag Gale (Joe Rogan).  And still, Griffin doesn’t see the fundamental mismatch between them, and longs to win her back.

Now, as it turns out, the animals at the zoo all can speak, and they decide to help him out, with mixed results.  The bears (Jon Favreau and Faizon Love) coach him on his walk; the male lion (Sylvester Stallone) insists he should act like an alpha-male, while his mate (Cher) suggests being seen with another woman; the giraffe (Maya Rudolph) and elephant (Judd Apatow) offer generic encouragement and comic relief.  The capuchin (producer Adam Sandler), suggests throwing poop, which seems an obvious choice for both character and actor.  And so with their advice,  some wingwoman work from the zoo’s veterinarian, Kate (Rosario Dawson), and a ludicrous firebird borrowed from the manager of the reptile house (Ken Jeong), Griffin sets out to win Stephanie’s heart.

It’s a straightforward enough setup, and provides plenty of opportunity for James to act silly and mug for the camera.  And yet the film does so little with the animals themselves.  So much time is spent on establishing just how little Griffin and Stephanie belong together that other important structural themes like the relationship between Griffin and Kate are neglected.  There’s far too much talking over the heads of an audience that wants to see more funny talking animals.

And it’s a surprising amount of talk for such a caricature of a story. Stephanie is a shallow, frivolous person, which is clear within the first few minutes and doesn’t bear nearly this much coverage. But in a way it’s worse how little time is spent on anyone else. Jeong and Dawson are all but absent, and we get the feeling the writers have no idea what to do with them. Even Just Go With It managed to balance it’s energy between Katherine and Palmer.

It’s not entirely bad.  There’s a whole subplot involving a maligned silverback gorilla (Nick Nolte), although it doesn’t really fit organically with the rest of the story.  Still, the sequence at (major corporate sponsor) T.G.I. Fridays is well-constructed.  Nolte has more chemistry with James than anyone else on screen, even as just a voice.  And it points to the real potential this premise contained.

But most of that potential goes to waste, and we’re left bored and unsatisfied.  And that, I assure you, is something you never want to deal with in a child under your care.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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