If you really are only as good as your last movie, Kevin James has been in a pretty bad place since January’s abysmal The Dilemma. Why he chose a talking animal movie to be its follow-up, we may never know, but surprisingly it works. Zookeeper‘s a goofy, family-friendly romp that gives James the chance to do what he does best– make us laugh.
The fun begins with zookeeper Griffin Keyes (James) having his marriage proposal unceremoniously rejected by his girlfriend Stephanie (Leslie Bibb)– just because she doesn’t want to be married to a (eww!) zookeeper. Five years later, while hosting his brother’s engagement party at the zoo, Griffin runs into Stephanie again, and all the old, gooey feelings come rushing back. The animals, of course, are there to overhear everything.
Worried that their loyal keeper may be destined for a life of miserable bachelorhood, they collectively decide to break the centuries-old ‘animals don’t talk when humans are around’ code to help him out.
Led by a bickering, old lion couple (Sylvester Stallone and Cher), the animals gather around Griffin to give him advice on how to win his lady friend back. Of course, it consists of the capuchin monkey (Adam Sandler) suggesting he throw poop and a pair of bears (Jon Favreau and Faizon Love) advising him to throw his arms up in the air and growl a lot… but at least they’re trying.
Also willing to help is the beautiful and friendly Kate (Rosario Dawson), the zoo’s vet, who agrees to go on a ‘we’ll show her‘ date with Griffin. And yes, you can see where this thing is headed pretty much from the word ‘go’, but the journey is still an entertaining ride.
Director Frank Coraci (Click, The Wedding Singer) is used to working with broad comedy, and he keeps it up here to full effect. James spends a considerable amount of time flat on his back after tripping, falling, or otherwise doing something silly and painful-looking, but there’s also a decent amount of heart at work here, too. The screenplay, which James co-wrote with his longtime King of Queens buddies Nick Bakay and Rock Reuben (along with two others), actually seems more geared to adults a lot of the time. Sure, it’s completely silly, especially during scenes like Griffin’s late-night TGIFriday’s run with the lonely gorilla (Nick Nolte), but failed marriage proposals, blossoming new love, and male one-upsmanship are hardly the stuff of traditional kids fare.
James carries Zookeeper about as well as you could hope. Even though he’s one of the better physical comedians, he also knows when to dial it back and be flat-out charming. Dawson, who plays it straight pretty much throughout, is great, too, but she’s overshadowed largely by the hilarious voice cast. Stallone and Cher top the list, but Nolte is also excellent in all his gravelly goodness. Sandler, who seems to be channeling Gilbert Gottfried, proves he’s much more fun to be heard than be seen, and even the legendary Don Rickles gets in on the act as a chirpy bullfrog.
Zookeeper works mainly because it doesn’t try to be too stupid or too juvenile. Sometimes a little bit goes a long way.