"Zookeeper” is arguably one of the better products of the Adam Sandler Death of Cinema Fun Factory — but that’s an accomplishment somewhere on par with “Least Smelly Turd.”
Still, this jumbled fusion of CG talking-animal movie for kiddies and moronic rom-com for undemanding adults winds up being not entirely a fiasco, thanks mostly to the heroic contributions of Nick Nolte (as a gorilla) and Rosario Dawson.
Kevin James — who kind of already made this movie, only it was called “Hitch,” and he was getting romantic advice from Will Smith rather than lions, bears, and wolves — plays zookeeper Griffin Keyes, who’s still smarting over being rejected by Stephanie (Leslie Bibb) five years earlier when he proposed to her on a beach. (“Just ignore them,” he tells her, regarding the hired mariachi band and the fireworks, as they sadly trudge home on horseback.)
Stephanie dumped Griffin because she apparently has some beef with zookeeping, and thinks that Griffin somehow isn’t living up to his potential. But he clearly loves his work, the animals in the picture-perfect Boston zoo where he toils adore him, and he’s got a chummy friendship with the zoo’s perky vet, Kate (Dawson).
Griffin throws a party in the zoo to celebrate the upcoming wedding of his brother Dave (Nat Faxon), where Stephanie shows up and flusters Griffin, who’s in the middle of giving a speech about love while using a porcupine as a live prop. The animals overhear Griffin and Stephanie talking about each other, and they decide to help Griffin win his dream girl.
The animals, you see, can all speak English; they’ve just got a code that forbids them from ever revealing that fact to humans. (Which, if they could talk themselves out of being slaughtered by poachers or dressed up in tutus at circuses, they probably would, but never mind that for now.) And so the lions (Sylvester Stallone and Cher), the bears (Faizon Love and Jon Favreau), the monkey (Adam Sandler), the elephant (Judd Apatow), the wolf (UFC fighter Bas Rutten), and the giraffe (Maya Rudolph) talk to each other and, eventually to Griffin, about what Griffin needs to do to become an alpha.
The revelation of animal speech first leads to interminable scenes of Kevin James screaming, but eventually it allows Griffin to bond with Bernie (Nolte), the zoo’s recalcitrant diamondback gorilla. And Nolte, pro that he is, pours so much into Bernie that it actually makes “Zookeeper” feel like a real movie about characters about whom you might actually give a flip. (Even the sequence where Griffin takes Bernie to TGI Friday’s plays like a character moment rather than the piece of blatant product placement that it actually is.)
Griffin’s pursuit of Stephanie proves to be one slapstick catastrophe after another, but the movie’s obviously just killing time until it realizes what the audience knew in the first two minutes — it’s Kate who’s really the right girl for him. I mean, hey — it’s Rosario Dawson, and she’s a veterinarian.
What’s not to love? Dawson and James create some actual romantic chemistry, and they share the film’s highlight, wherein they try to make Stephanie jealous by dancing around Dave’s wedding on acrobat ribbons, which leads to Griffin destroying an ice sculpture and body-checking the bride.
It’s sort of a commentary on the sad state of family movies that the following even has to be said, but: “Zookeeper” isn’t toxic, isn’t rampantly sexist, and doesn’t completely bury the audience in bodily functions. And overall, it didn’t have me longing for the sweet release of death. So by those standards, it fares pretty well. If you believe that “children’s entertainment” doesn’t have to be thoroughly moronic — in the same way that “children’s food” doesn’t have to be horsemeat — you may find this movie somewhat lacking.
And who, exactly, thought that little kids would care about a romantic triangle so utterly artificial and contrived that Katherine Heigl would feel right at home in the middle of it? Conversely, why stick a sassy giraffe in the middle of a love story? The uneasy marriage of genres feels like someone wanted to copy the usual Pixar formula — make movies that children and adults alike can enjoy, albeit on different levels — but wound up with a freakish man-bear-pig instead.
Still, James is affably likable in that sitcom-star manner that he brings to every movie, and every so often, “Zookeeper” reminds you of the much better film it could conceivably have become. And in a summer when even Pixar has dropped the ball in providing quality entertainment for the whole family, that might just be enough for desperate parents.