When it comes to summer blockbusters, the new release The Zookeeper certainly does not give off the feel of a title primed for this time of year. It has more of the whiff of something seen in an off-season dumping ground on the schedule, like a Paul Blart. In fact this was to be the case. Initially tabbed for a forgotten October 2010 release, this film saw its release become fluid once Sony pictures faced a dilemma. Initially the studio had set up this summer as the time for its Spiderman 4 tent-pole; however they later decided to reboot that franchise. Suddenly they had to scramble to find something to tap into this year’s profitable summer slate, and thus this weak release (sporting a dismal 14% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) saw a promotion onto the 2011 summer schedule.

To say this film is derivative is an understatement. It has quite the look and feel of an earlier family romp, Night at the Museum. Take a meek individual, place him in a position working inside a public institution, and then have the denizens therein come to life after hours while their anthropomorphic antics help bring changes to his personal life.  But this sort of mimicking of ideas happens often, right? I mean, the studio would not want to stoop so low as to actually lift elements outright from a wholly different production . . . would they?

Well now, I guess there are some similarities here in the two posters – from the cast members peering into the frame, the looming overhead character, and the beams of light shooting off about the uniform-clad hero – but can’t this be chalked up to coincidence?  Do you mean to imply they intentionally stole elements from another poster for their own one-sheet?

Uh, maybe we should just move on.

Following their shift of this baggage to a 2011 release Sony threw a little more promotional push behind the title than it probably would have enjoyed on its original release date. At the annual Cinema-Con event in Las Vegas for exhibitors Sony converted the lobby of the Caesar’s Palace into a live zoo, and they gave a showing of the film for the theater owners in town in the Colosseum Theater, normally used for Celine Dion concerts. (I’ll leave it to you to decide if that was a step down, or step up.) This spread out into a natural fit as a promotional tie-in where the world premiere was broadcast in many of the zoos across the country.

Now when it comes to product placements this movie has distinguished itself, by way of notoriety. The restaurant chain TGI Fridays not only gets mentioned and shown on camera, but full scenes play out inside of one location, with Kevin James sitting and eating with Bernie the gorilla. It turns out Bernie has had a curiosity about how great the restaurants are, and in a bonding moment they pull up to one such eatery.

I for one would begin by asking how it is a gorilla in a zoo – speaking or not – would have any foreknowledge of the restaurant chain, but I’m not alone in my dismay. The blatant nature of this promo has received quite a significant amount of criticism, and the executives from TGI Fridays have tried to downplay the connection. In one article a company rep stated the company did not pay for the appearance in the film, making it out to be simply a serendipitous occurrence in the original screenplay. But this then begs the question: if this was not a standard placement deal why does the corporate logo appear on the film’s official website?  On the site map they employ an ersatz map of the zoo, and a TGI Fridays sign is seen “printed” in a portion.

The company’s FaceBook page also touted the connection.

Despite the negative reaction I don’t think the company is too upset with the result. Just about every single film review made mention of the appearance, while most mentioned the restaurant by name. That’s called getting the word out.

Television is also the usual outlet, and the expected carpet-bombing of commercials was augmented in some curious ways. During the NBA finals the film not only was given heavy promotional pushes, but Kevin James himself conducted interviews with Bernie the Gorilla on screen, much to the dismay of basketball fans.

But on the subject of product placement another curious outlet was recently discovered, and it involved syndicated sit-coms and, apparently, time travel. There is a growing trend where television companies have found a new revenue stream by using digital manipulation to create a disquieting form of product placement. To illustrate, take a look at this screen-cap from the CBS comedy series “How I met Your Mother”:

This is from a scene in season #2. Look specifically over the left shoulder of the character of Robin (Cobie Smulders). There is what appears to be a clock statue, set on a table behind the sofa. However, in the syndicated broadcast of this same episode the week before the release of “The Zookeeper”, this same scene came on but with an interesting alteration to the image seen by television viewers:

This is not a matter of curious timing by the way, given that even the shooting schedule of the film had taken place after the initial airing of this episode on CBS. The first screen cap is actually taken from a DVD from the second season boxed set.

I am not sure what is more bothersome to me. There is some distaste with the realization that studios are willing to digitally manipulate their own finished product like this for the sake of some extra dollars, to be sure. But I think I am more bothered that they are trying to imply that such a commoditized piece of derivative cinema – a stolen plot augmented with goofball talking animals and countless fat-man pratfalls – could have possibly been adapted from a published work.