At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Zookeeper “2011”

MPAA Rating: PG/ Genre: Fantasy Romantic Comedy/ Stars: Kevin James, Rosario Dawson, Leslie Bibb, Joe Rogan, Nat Faxon, Ken Jeong, Steffiana de la Cruz, Thomas Gottschalk, Donnie Wahlberg, Brandon Keener; Voices of: Nick Nolte, Sylvester Stallone, Adam Sandler, Judd Apatow, Cher, Jon Favreau, Faizon Love, Maya Rudolph, Bas Rutten, Don Rickles, Jim Breuer, Richie Minervini/ Runtime: 102 minutes

If you had Dr. Dolittle take a night tour through the museum at the heart of Night at the Museum, then I think you might have a slice of cinematic pie that resembled to some degree 2011’s Zookeeper. By that of course I mean you clearly will have yet another well-intentioned and every so often comedic yet quite run of the mill comedy starring Kevin James that the world of movie magic would have been just fine without it being a part of its existence. Indeed even when taking account the fact that this slice of cinematic pie is a tad bit more rom com than it is zany animals who talk film, there is not much in the way of substance even if its heart is in the right place. Yes this movie does try not to be any huge game changer by any means and yes its only desire is to give the viewer a chuckle, but in all fairness a movie goer can only see physical comedy mixed together with loony visual work and popular music choices before this whole thing starts to feeling a bit on the stale side. Again it’s not that there isn’t anything wrong with this slice of cinematic pie in regards to its technical ingredients, I mean the performances are decent, the production values are actually well done, and the animals who talk shtick is actually not that bad here. It’s just that at the end of the day not only does this film not feel distinct, but it’s also not really as funny as it should be and it ultimately feels like you are no better for having sat through this film’s 102, including credits, minute runtime.

The plot is as follows: Zookeeper tells the story of a (what else) zookeeper by the name of Griffin Keyes. A man who, among other attributes, is noteworthy for having the utmost love and passion for both his job and the animals in his care. Oh and for the fact that he is also hopelessly head-over-heels and quite madly in love with a girl by the name of Stephanie. Yet when Griffin finally gets the strength to pop the question, things don’t go exactly as he planned. In fact, if we’re being completely honest he is heartlessly and mercilessly turned down simply because his job is not one that Stephanie considers to be “worthy” of her love. To that end, we see that a few years later Griffin is still doing what he loves at the zoo when by chance he runs into Stephanie at his brother’s wedding. Of course, it should come as no surprise to learn he falls in love with her once more only this time there is also the caveat that Griffin actually decides that maybe he should take leave of the zoo and trade it in for a more well-earning job at his brother’s car dealership since he feels that might be the clincher to winning Stephanie at long last. Of course, the zoo’s group of animals all happen to like and respect Griffin and have no desire to see him leave them high and dry let alone a job they know he is truly happy at. To that end, and to keep him at the zoo, we see the animals all reveal that they all are able to talk in order to use their own mating traditions in order to both transform Griffin into a more compatible mate for Stephanie whilst also keeping him at the zoo for as long as possible. Well that is everyone except for Bernie, a withdrawn gorilla who, for reasons that are revealed as the movie goes on, wants nothing to do with being part of the zoo family. Thus we see that with the aid of both the zoo’s populace and the zoo’s kind and goodhearted vet Kate that Griffin is able to slowly but surely get into Stephanie’s good graces. However the question remains: IF Griffin is successful what exactly is it going to cost him in regards to who he is on the inside?

Now it might be sad to say this, but when you’ve managed to get through Zookeeper from beginning to end, you realize that this slice of cinematic pie just doesn’t have a lot in its favor to warrant calling it a “good film”. Indeed perhaps the biggest deterrent against it is the fact that you’ve seen this plot in a million other movies and there just isn’t a whole lot about this movie that is particularly funny. As for the biggest positive that this movie has going for it, that would be not only the amount of heart this film has, but the fact that it is genuine and that everyone involved in this performance wise is actually trying even if they are let down by the rest of the movie. I mean make no mistake dear reader: Zookeeper is a welcoming and quite amicable slice of cinematic pie that is blessed with trying to teach audiences an actually worthy of learning lesson in life. Yet for all its noble intentions and/or aspirations, it really is sad to see this movie’s one-dimensional sense of humor and how run of the mill it is really negates a lot of the positives that this movie has going for it. Be that as it may be, you still can’t help but respect this film for showcasing an integrity-laced, if not slightly clumsy, individual trying to find who he is even though he already is who he’s meant to be. It is in that respect that I can easily say that Kevin James is usually not bad when portraying this type of character….or at least he is as good as the script for that particular film will permit. Suffice it to say this film is no different as James does at least try, and every so often succeed, at getting this movie to be even remotely comedic, but in all fairness even the finest comedic minds aren’t much without wonderful material and James just isn’t given a whole lot of that to operate with. Yes he is aided by both a decent human support cast and quite a few “big names” lending their voices to the animals and they’re not bad either, but this film’s one-dimensional script, and a run of the mill narrative among other things eventually take this film from being “possibly not bad” to “something you have seen a million times”.

Indeed there is quite the similarities to be found between the idea of a soul adrift and the animals in the zoo, especially the gorilla named Bernie, that I feel should honestly have gone more in-depth on because it is in that correlation that this slice of cinematic pie could have used to be quite distinct. I say that because in this film we see that the character of Griffin, for whatever reason, feels closed in and completely adrift and aimless in his job at the zoo….or so he thinks. As a result, we see this man push aside where he is the happiest in his life and go after something that most assuredly will completely throw his life off kilter….even if he is too blind to see it. Rather, he is just focused on growing into something that he is not in the hopes that the benefits, however unlikely, are worth it. Yet at the end of the day it is these ridiculous quests which often help us as people grow when all is said and done. On the other side of the coin there is this film’s talking animals cast that we see don’t always express how they are feeling as they are quite able to do so, but nevertheless are able to proudly figure out just who they are, and where they’re meant to be to say nothing of perfectly comprehending their nature and utilize generations of learned instincts to steer their paths, and to an extent, their beloved zookeeper, in life. Thus this slice of cinematic pie is one on some level that strives to revolve around a highly unorthodox quest back to knowing who you are and just appreciating the good things in your life. Yet the problem that this movie is saddled with is that it doesn’t really seem to immerse itself as much in that concept as it should even if there are at least a pair of characters, one human and one animal that really seem to be terrific embodiments of this wonderful idea.

As it is though, this slice of cinematic pie is one that puts more emphasis on the comedy rather than the heart and as a result comes out feeling like this could have been a lot better had more care been given to it during both the writing and filming phases. Yes I get that putting more of an emphasis on the comedy rather than the more meaningful thematic concepts might have been seen as the more commercially profitable thing to do, but both of these ingredients still manage to suffer. A fact that incidentally may or may not be because this slice of cinematic pie’s quite pointless structure seems to only go forward with the typical full-circle narrative arc which by doing so tosses onto the bonfire any chance for this film to perhaps indulge in doing things in a unique manner. As a result, this places this slice of cinematic pie firmly in the camp of being another one-note entry in the subgenre of movie magic known as family comedies that will most likely have children laughing and embracing the goofy animal shenanigans and people older than 17 left pondering just how in the world a film with this one’s foundation and the chance to be something truly wonderful could turn out so wrong. I mean no this movie is not an outright fiasco by any means, but the odds are even the most casual of movie goers might not be willing to give this a 2nd watch.

All in all the 2011 slice of cinematic pie that is Zookeeper is a movie that I strongly feel is a decent representation of what the vast majority of entries in the sub-genre known as family comedies are all about nowadays. By that I mean you can predict where this will go with ease, it’s not exactly laugh out loud hilarious, it doesn’t have much in the way of novelty, and it is constructed on a plot that could have been something quite distinct, but which sadly is left in the background and traded in for physical comedy that is flatter than the Earth was thought to be and verbal comedy that doesn’t run nearly as well as it should. Yes Kevin James isn’t terrible, the supporting cast is actually not that bad, and the production value is good as well, but unfortunately this slice of cinematic pie still is nowhere near on the level of what it takes to be a genuinely good family comedy let alone a good movie period. On a scale of 1-5 I give Zookeeper “2011” a solid 2.5 out of 5.