When the ad campaigns for Zookeeper began, with movie posters flooding the courts of the NBA playoffs and a trailer that suggested Mall Cop meets Night at the Museum, the film looked more than unappealing. It had the appearance of a dim, cheesy product like all the latest disappointments from Happy Madison productions. As it turns out, the inferences surrounding it definitely hold true. Zookeeper exhibits no brains and a silly sense of humor. But surprisingly, those things, combined with some fine physical humor from Kevin James, prove to make for a relatively satisfying family comedy.
The story, which borrows from many films we've seen, centers on a kind but brokenhearted zookeeper named Griffin, played remarkably by James. In the open sequence, we learn why he's so down. After proposing to his beautiful blonde girlfriend (Leslie Bibb) beside the ocean, following a romantic horseback ride on the beach, he receives a harsh and shocking "no." Evidently, he didn't turn into the dream man she always wanted. Five years later, Griffin is still troubled by the event. He can't move on.
So when Stephanie suddenly shows up for his brother's (Nat Faxon) wedding, Griffin falls right back in love; all the feelings he's been trying to quash come right back to the surface. When the zoo animals realize this and overhear Stephanie speaking of her feelings and plans for Griffin leaving the zoo, they have to make some big and quick decisions. Not only do they break their code of silence—yes, they're talking animals—but they also devise a plan to help Griffin win Stephanie's heart so he can be finally be happy and, of course, stay with them at the zoo.
All sorts of shenanigans ensue, including a gorilla party at TGI Friday's and a rivalry between Griffin and Stephanie's laughably arrogant ex (Joe Rogan). It's all hackneyed and overly goofy, but it accomplishes what director Frank Coraci intended. The middling filmmaker apparently sees the world through the eyes of a child. His humor lacks intelligence. His script, written by Nick Bakay, covers no new ground. His thoughts on love and life in general fall into idealism. Nevertheless, given his target audience of families, children, and anyone willing to leave their brain and cynicism at the box office, Coraci succeeds. He doesn't just express his worldview through themes of love, friendship, and identity that flow naturally out of the story. He finds a way to provoke laughs with some refreshing slapstick comedy. From start to finish, Griffin's clumsy antics, such as his falling into a pit while trying to save some women from a lion or acting like a grizzly bear to practice his charm, really do keep us laughing.
Even more, like most children, Coraci has quite the imagination. With the zoo animals, he shows a knack for creating visual art. While annoying at times, the talking creatures look surprisingly believable. In fact, it's hard to recall a film that has accomplished the same gimmick so well. The talking animals in pictures like Babe and Stuart Little looked entirely contrived, but here they seem believable—for talking animals that is. Their mouths match the characteristics of their physical appearances and unique behaviors.