With Kevin James, Rosario Dawson, Leslie Bibb; Running Time 104 minutes; Rated PG (for some rude and suggestive humor); Written by Nick Bakay and Rock Reuben & Kevin James, Jay Scherick & David Ronn; Directed by Frank Coraci.
There’s a great beginning to ZOOKEEPER, both as a visual treat and as a funny, semi-dramatic idea. The opening scene is torn right from the closing scene of the original “Planet Of The Apes.” A man and a woman are on horseback, riding along a beach, when they find something. No, it’s not a remnant from some long-ago civilization. It’s a pre-arranged bottle, with a marriage proposal. But the guy is shut down by her. All that clever planning, including an appearance by a mariachi band, for nothing.
Alas, that’s also the last clever component of this surprisingly awful, complete misfire of a movie. The five scriptwriters (Five writers! Big Red Flag! A-oogah! A-oogah!) seem to have been going for a crossover experience, a film that would please both young kids and the adults who bring those kids, shell out the dough for tickets, and have to watch with them.
But at a recent packed-house screening, the adults were sitting there straight-faced, the kids were getting more and more antsy, no one was laughing, and anyone wearing a watch was taking furtive glances at it, wondering how much longer it would be going on (answer: it runs for an excruciating 102 minutes).
What was supposed to draw everyone in is the story of nice guy Griffin (Kevin James), the head man at an old school zoo (shot at Dorchester’s Franklin Park Zoo), who is spurned by the woman of his dreams (an annoying and miscast Leslie Bibb) because, well, because he’s just a zookeeper.
But, heck! He’s a really good zookeeper, passionate about his work. And all the animals love him. So when this unattainable woman sorta comes back into his life, and he thinks about getting out of zoo work to be with her, the animals get together to figure out a way to keep him.
Ah, yes, another live-action talking animal movie. Truth be told, the special effects wizards do an outstanding job here. These animals really do appear to be talking. But this is a genre that should’ve been mercifully Old-Yeller’d way back with “Babe.” Then maybe we wouldn’t have had to go through the “Doctor Dolittle” and “Cats & Dogs” debacles.
Even if you can ignore the thoroughly inane patter between animals as well as between animals and one human (they only speak to Griffin), the film also offers up lots of Kevin James pratfalls, a couple of embarrassingly uncomfortable scenes of him imitating a roaring bear, and a painfully unfunny visit to a TGI Fridays by Griffin and an animatronic gorilla (voice of Nick Nolte). A gratingly over-the-top voice performance by Adam Sandler as a monkey is unforgiveable.
There’s a hint of romance for Griffin via coworker Kate (Rosario Dawson, who deserves better than this role), but the film turns into a case of badly-paced Hollywood formula, with James, who does not have a naturally funny screen presence, working much too hard to get a laugh.
Warning: By the end, the mariachi band has returned, the animals have taken to singing, and we have started begging the Universe not to show its disdain for us by splattering us with a “Zookeeper 2.”•••
Ed Symkus has been reviewing and writing about films since 1975. His favorite one is “And Now My Love.” The one he despises most is “Liquid Sky.” He lives in West Roxbury.