2011, PG, 104 min. Directed by Frank Coraci. Voices by Nick Nolte, Sylvester Stallone, Adam Sandler, Cher, Judd Apatow, Jon Favreau, Faizon Love, Maya Rudolph. Starring Kevin James, Rosario Dawson, Leslie Bibb, Ken Jeong.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., July 8, 2011
I’m not gonna sugarcoat this: Movies don’t have to be this bad. And go ahead, call me a killjoy, say it’s crotchety to hold films geared at kids to some critical standard. Bullshit. Kids deserve better. They deserve to have their imaginations tickled and teased, to have miraculous things projected 10 feet tall – not some guy in a gorilla suit playing wingman to Kevin James at a T.G.I. Friday’s. Actually, is this geared at kids? Because I can’t for the life of me figure how the five screenwriters it took to tap out this crapper thought kids would be interested in watching James’ sad-sack zookeeper Griffin try to woo back his mean, vapid ex-girlfriend (Bibb). Here’s the bait and switch: Griffin is coached in the ways of seduction by talking animals. (Kids love those, right?) But director Frank Coraci, whose last credit was the TV movie I’m in Hell (that setup’s way too easy), doesn’t seem remotely interested in the tactile wonder of a giraffe or a lion; the animals here, the main attractions at a second-rate New England zoo, serve merely as digitally enhanced mouthpieces for comic banter. Some of the jokes hit – and, considering the voice actors are culled mostly from comedy, I’d wager they did some in-studio rewrite-riffing (Favreau and Love, as squabbling bears, have a giggling bit about a Canadian Kodiak girlfriend, and Sandler, as some kind of marble-mouthed simian, gets points just for being the most cracked-out). But most of the jokes miss, given the film’s single, suffocating focus on how to shape Griffin into an alpha-male predator. Screenwriting 101 demands an emotional arc for the protagonist – dark times are required to earn the good times to come, sure – but Zookeeper’s team of scribes have made the crucial misstep of crafting a character utterly devoid of moral strength. And did I mention the cruel lust for revenge-taking? (Cause it’s cool to teach kids that violence, be it physical or emotional, should be met with more violence, right?) But, hey, like I said, there’s that lure of Real. Live. Animals! Oh, wait: Zookeeper’s most prominent animal character, a gorilla named Bernie, is portrayed by a combination of an animatronic ape and a dude in a suit. And you can tell. (He’s voiced by Nick Nolte, who I can only surmise was cast because the resemblance of that long-ago mugshot to a real-life gorilla was irresistible.) Look, dumb comedy’s fine if it’s, you know, smart about it. Zookeeper’s just dumb-dumb, and, more criminally, has nothing at all of magic to impart to the kids. They deserve so much more.