DVD Release Date: October 11, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: July 8, 2011
Rating: PG (for some rude and suggestive humor, and language)
Genre: Comedy
Run Time: 104 min.
Director: Frank Coraci
Cast:  Kevin James, Rosario Dawson, Leslie Bibb. Voices of: Adam Sandler, Cher, Sylvester Stallone, Nick Nolte

It doesn’t get any more simplistic than the “Fat Man Fall Down” brand of comedy, but when it’s done with a good-natured spirit rather than mockery it may be the most reliable laugh in the history of the human race. And since Chris Farley, no one’s done it better than Kevin James.

After a successful run on TV with The King Of Queens, James has steadily built a film career with a mix of leading and supporting/ensemble roles, all playing variations on his loveable big guy persona. Zookeeper, his latest starring vehicle, follows Paul Blart: Mall Cop as another amusing (if not new) turn by James and produced by his good friend Adam Sandler. They share a similar approach—broad laughs with a big heart—aimed at two different audiences. While Sandler makes crude comedies for Gen-Xers, James makes cute ones for their families.

In a Dr. Doolittle meets Night at the Museum mash-up concept, James plays Griffin Keyes, the titular keeper of a big city zoo. Inexplicably dating a gorgeous blonde from the world of fashion, she rejects his elaborate marriage proposal while belittling his profession. Years later, she re-enters his life for a possible second chance, but Griffin will have to compete with another one of her exes to win her over.

Naturally, that’s where the talking animals come in.

Griffin is the most beloved staff member by said animals, but with the pressure from his ex to find a better, more high-profile career, Griffin feels that his only option is to move on. The zoo’s residents band together and agree to help Griffin increase his animal magnetism. If they’re successful, they reason, he can win back the ex without having to leave.

To do so, the animals have to break “The Code”, i.e. the agreement between all living creatures to not speak human language around other humans, despite their ability to do so. Who knew? Before you know it the entire zoo is giving Griffin pointers on how to be an Alpha Male.

Therein lies the basic structure for both the plot and the comedy, and it’s a mixed bag at best. In short, animals acting like humans isn’t all that funny, but Kevin James acting like animals is—especially when attempts end in some form of pratfall.

The manic strain to breathe life into the conventional “Animals Talking” trick is palpable, but it’s basically the same shtick. Give them zany voices, each performed by former stars (Sylvester Stallone, Cher, Nick Nolte) or reliable comics (Adam Sandler, Maya Rudolph, Judd Apatow, and others), and have them say and do very silly things. Kids will love it even as parents grow tired.

That’s what makes the presence of Kevin James so crucial. Without him, this is an eye-rolling slog for adults. But with him, while it may not elevate the material to something worthy for grown-ups, it makes the family moviegoing experience an enjoyable rather than excruciating one for parents. James’ skill as a physical comedian is hilarious at any age, and his endearing awkwardness gives adults someone to actually care about.

Of course you can’t fill 90+ minutes of movie with just gags; unfortunately, the fleshing out of the peripheral plot threads follows formulaic lines. Griffin deserves better than his ex who is an elitist snob, and his competition for her is an equally arrogant jerk. Meanwhile there’s a beautiful co-worker at the zoo (Rosario Dawson, Unstoppable) who could be Griffin’s soul-mate. The story goes through the standard machinations of avoiding the obvious choices before Griffin sees the light and eventually makes them.

Efforts at heart-tugging are made a bit more effectively in the friendship between Griffin and the zoo’s quarantined gorilla. People fear he’s violent when in actuality he’s just misunderstood; a likeable old softy with a strong moral character. That friendship is tested as Griffin is pulled between the place that he loves and the woman who would tempt him away from it.

Through all of these perfunctory narratives, lessons are learned about loyalty, honesty, trust, and not holding on to bitterness, as well as the important adage to stay true to who you are and not betraying that for what others want you to be (especially those who only care about themselves). That, and never take dating advice from an animal.

Zookeeper is a disposable, even forgettable, entry into the Cineplex, and is at best worthy of a rental. But with live-action PG-entertainments being rare as they are, it remains a welcome diversion for families that—aside from mild romantic references (phrases like “making out”, discussions of wooing and attracting females, etc.)—will make most parents feel at ease with bringing their pups and cubs of any age.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol Content: Alcohol is served and consumed at a party, but not prominent and no drunkenness.
  • Language/Profanity: The world “hell” is used as a profanity three times. A use of the word “freakin’!” Childish insults are used against people, with the intent to hurt, and the hero James sometimes engages in it.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity: Occasional discussions/tips about wooing and attracting the opposite sex. One of the zoo employees is kind of creepy (but silly and harmless) as he flirts with women on a couple of occasions. A mild flirtation of “freckle chest” is used. James tries to “seduce” his ex, but played for comedy. The phrase “we make out—hard” is used. A hip-hop song with the lyrics “booty hit the floor” is heard prominently in one scene. A brief kiss.
  • Violence: James is suddenly “stabbed” twice in the face by porcupine needles. Some comical fisticuffs. Men threaten violence toward each other on a couple of occasions. At one point, James’ character hits a bully and knocks him into a wall, even though it’s unprovoked at the moment and not done in self-defense (some might see it as endorsing the idea of punching/fighting mean people, but it’s basically cartoonish).
  • Other: The monkey recommends “throwing poop.” A dog briefly licks its genitals. A wolf pees on a tree, at length, and James follows suit—outdoors, at the zoo, and is seen doing that by two women.