Watching Kevin James’ Zookeeper is the opposite of a blow job.
That might be an odd thing to say about a family film geared towards pleasing the PG crowd with poop jokes (that involve no actual poop) and Kevin James falling down repeatedly, but it will suffice when the experience is so consistently boring, unfunny and so (so) stupid. The success of this film following up the $150 million dollar gross of Paul Blart could very well seal Kevin James as an enduring comedic brand, and I can’t imagine a more dystopian future. It’s not often that I feel my job has charged me with a profound moral obligation, but in this case I feel it my duty to implore you to under no circumstances see Zookeeper, least of all if you’re in possession of your own image-bearing brood.
The film begins with a sunset horseback ride as Griffin (Kevin James) and Stephanie (Leslie Bibb) run across a bottle washed ashore. This set-up turns into an elaborate marriage proposal from Griffin which Stephanie immediately refuses and, of course, turns into a total breakup because Griffin isn’t going anywhere as a zookeeper. The scene devolves into James “comically” stammering while Bibb grows “comically” and illogically angry. Right away not only is all of this not funny, but it’s ostentatiously ugly- despite the golden glow of a nearby sunset, everyone’s face is in flat shadow. I know comedies aren’t known for their amazing cinematography, but I’m skeptical the D.P. even showed up! It’s that kind of painfully shitty filmmaking that makes Zookeeper aggressively bad, instead of just boring.
Cut to five years later and we find that Griffin is still a good-hearted zookeeper who goes out of his way to make the animals happy, and has a good rapport with his gorgeous co-worker Kate (Rosario Dawson). Overall Griffin is in a good place, but he’s obviously as lonely as the unfriendly gorilla the zoo keeps in solitary confinement. Soon, for some stupid reason, Griffin’s brother inadvertently brings Stephanie back into Griffin’s life, and he becomes determined to win this stupid woman back. At this point you have to hit the brakes, back up, and go down a different mental street as most viewers will have already written off Leslie Bibb as a shallow, worthless person that existed solely to set up Griffin as a romantic underdog from the start. Nope- winning her back will be the entire focus of our hero and his talking animal companions.
Before we get to the verbose beast angle though, let’s look at where the film fails to even be competent from the start. Again, you’ve already dismissed Stephanie as a worthless butthole and suddenly Griffin is after her again. Obviously there are clear ideas of pursuing unhealthy relationships here, but the film doesn’t even make the effort to position Stephanie as even temporarily or conceptually agreeable. Also, there’s a reason the cliché of the hidden-beauty right in front of your eyes exists- if Rosario Dawson is blatantly beautiful, charming, and interested in Griffin from the start, then we can never roll with what’s happening! There are reasons comedic love stories rely on so many tried tropes, because the stories don’t even tread close to compelling if they fail to balance the pieces. Zookeeper definitely fails, and then the animals start opening their goddamn mouths.
A gorilla, a monkey, two lions, an elephant, a wolf, a giraffe, and two bears make up the animal cast of Zookeeper, backed by voices from the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Adam Sandler, Jon Favreau, Judd Apatow, Cher, and Nick Nolte. Save for Nolte as Bernie the grizzled Gorilla, they’re all uniformly hateful, tortuous parodies of actual voice performances that should stick with each performer –some of whom are fantastic human beings– as a shameful pockmark on their resume. Like cheap paint being overmixed, it’s hard to pull apart this muddy brown mess of shit and figure out what elements are the worst, but it’s clear the screenwriters and the vocal actors were in a competition to figure out who could get away with delivering the least funny material and still cash a check. Granted, it’s possible the actors were all coached to aim their performances solely at not-yet sentient 3-year-olds that laugh only at silly sounds, but each and every one of them missed even that low bar and landed straight up their own ass. The anti-humor is stunning, and while anecdotes add little to reviews, I can’t help but note that my packed audience filled with kids and their average Joe parents never seemed to emit more than scattered laughs. Let’s just say I won’t have to watch the film a second time to catch any jokes I missed.
It’s not worth tearing each and every animal performance apart, but it is worth pointing out a few particularly egregious performances. Naturally Adam Sandler makes his presence known in the film as the aforementioned thumb and poo-obsessed monkey, sporting a voice that could only be described as Sandler sounding like he’s perpetually mid-shit. As amateur and uneven as Sandler’s monkey tones are though, they don’t compare to Maya Rudolph as the sassy giraffe, who shrieks out inane dialogue at frequencies that may very well trigger the growth of murder tumors in all who are exposed. If in a few weeks everyone who bought a Zookeeper ticket starts destroying their loved ones… well, then we’ll know. Finally Sylvester Stallone is the alpha-male lion and I simply can’t imagine a more pained, awkward performance devoid of timing or wit.
Somehow though, garbage comedic performances aren’t even the worst aspect of the “animal stuff.” What manages to overshadow the incompetent clowning of each and every animal character is that the creatures themselves are integrated into the plot without even the hint of logic and their presence in the film is fucking worthless. While you might expect a Happy Madison production based on a performer with a strong solo debut would be able to spring for some scale, the film lives up to its name as virtually every bit of animal action takes place in the tiny, always-deserted zoo. Nolte’s gorilla is the only animal to ever leave the zoo, and so the animal involvement mostly comes in the form of poorly shot gatherings on the zoo set. There’s no wacky scenes of a bunch of ostentatious creatures trying to stay incognito at a nice restaurant, or a slapstick appearance of wild animals at a wedding party, or any other kind of raucous set piece that would typically be the minimum standard for a film like this. Instead there is one forced montage of a Gorilla out on the town, which takes place mostly in and around a shamelessly tied-in chain-restaurant (which I’ll not give more advertisement by mentioning), and one scene where the animals (still stuck immobile, in a big circle at the zoo) communicate with Griffin by cellphone at the end of a date.
We’ve seen many of these human beings, including director Frank Caraci, involved in comedies that work. Even efforts like The Waterboy and The Wedding Singer that I’ve never really liked as much as it seems many people do, are at least competent, fully realized films that accomplish the basic tasks necessary to make a crowd-pleasing comedy. Perhaps it’s the catastrophic failure of Even Almighty that forced all subsequent animal-related comedies to whittle themselves down to the barest of bones, but there’s more scale in a kid playing with plastic animals in the toy aisle at Wal-Mart than you’ll find here.
I get why Kevin James is a popular mainstream comedian, and it’s clear he possesses timing chops that he just failed to employ here. His movie sucks though, and it sucks in pretty much every way it could suck. In a lightly romantic family comedy featuring talking critters, the animals are terrible and barely involved, the romance doesn’t work and isn’t particularly cute, and the movie isn’t very funny*. Even if one could come up with other, more basic levels on which a film should strive to succeed, I’m fairly certain Zookeeper fails there too. This isn’t the kind of garbage that you mindlessly drop your kids off at, or suffer through for the little ones, or eventually buy on DVD to fill their time while you do laundry. Never will there be two hours in the life of a child or anyone else that couldn’t be spent watching or doing something better. There exists no reason for any person to ever see Zookeeper. So don’t.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Note: The “rating” above is displaying properly, and I am completely aware of the length of this review.
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*I emitted an abrupt, unexpected chuckle exactly one time in the film. It involved Kevin James and a Barry White song, and it’s the only gag he sold worth a damn that didn’t cut or captured poorly.