Lasciate ogne speranza, voi chi’intrate. How did it come to this? At the height of his power in Hollywood in 1999, Adam Sandler founded his own production company as a way to continue making the movies he enjoys. Over the years his films have slowly morphed into a pariah on the landscape of big budget studio comedies, becoming thinly veiled excuses for lavish vacations. But do they truly represent the nadir in the career of one of comedy’s once-brightest stars? Are there any hidden or underrated gems? Is there such a thing as too few fart jokes? Will I retain any sense of sanity by the end of this? Join me and find out, as we venture to the Happy Valley.
Hollywood has attempted to adapt the beloved children’s-book character Dr. Dolittle at least three times — not including the sequels of Eddie Murphy’s 1998 iteration — all to mixed success. Of course, those are only a drop in the bucket of family-friendly “talking animal” films, in which Zookeeper inextricably belongs. The film tries to become a blend of that genre and a romantic comedy, but never truly carves out its own niche in either one.
Kevin James stars as Griffin, the titular zookeeper, who is looking to romantically reconnect after getting dumped by the love of his life (Leslie Bibb) because she looks down on his profession. Helping Griffin out on his quest for personal and romantic redemption are a horde of celebrity-voiced animals, including a lion (Sylvester Stallone), an elephant (Judd Apatow), two bears (Faizon Love and Jon Favreau), a giraffe (Maya Rudolph), a monkey (Adam Sandler) and a gorilla (Nick Nolte). Griffin’s quest for love is further complicated by his feelings for his saintly co-worker with absolutely no downsides, played by the over-qualified and entirely too charming Rosario Dawson. Surely you can fill in the blanks regarding how the film plays out from there.
What worked so well for James in Paul Blart: Mall Cop is on full display here, as he falls and flounders his way through various misadventures. Regarding Blart, I espoused that James bears a passing similarity to Chris Farley, and I found him fitting more and more into that mold here. Farley’s charm lied not just in his ability to fall down a bunch, but in taking his physical comedy a step farther and making it truly bizarre. In particular, the wedding scene where James and Dawson swing around on aerial silks* provides James the perfect opportunity to sell his commitment to excessive pratfalls. James’ everyman sensibility makes him an ideal romantic comedy star, even if he lacks the traditional good looks like other post-2000s leading men.
* I know full well that they exist merely as a plot contrivance, but as a wedding photographer, I cannot express enough how terrible an idea it is to have aerial silks at a wedding reception with an open bar. If your wedding planner or venue tries to sell you on them, do not do it.
Though the film is full of rote material throughout — even with the surreal aspect of the talking animals and all — the film takes a truly bonkers departure midway through, when Griffin and Nick Nolte’s gorilla go to a TGI Friday’s (yes, you read that correctly). The scene, as dumb and nonsensical as it is, is one of the few bright spots, and I found myself wishing the rest of the film could keep up that weird energy until the end. Forget any standard-issue romantic comedy trappings and give me more wacky Kevin James-based animal hijinks (no, not that kind). Take the giraffe to the movie theater; go bowling with the bears; visit the Statue of Liberty with the lion. Try something new, and I’ll be in the theater on opening day.
Still, much like the majority of Happy Madison’s films, it’s hard to be mad at Zookeeper. The story may be lazily written and many of the jokes telegraphed from a mile away, but it never feels like the actors have contempt for the material. Even by 2011, when the film was released, Happy Madison’s reputation for mediocre comedy was far from a well-kept secret, so the actors could certainly be forgiven for phoning it in. There are far too many films from this project that I would be reluctant to rewatch on a whim, but if forced to rewatch Zookeeper, I wouldn’t put up a huge fight. I would never recommend this film to somebody, but I think there are worse options to choose from when looking for a family-friendly comedy. Sure, like so many other films, Zookeeper never manages to distinguish itself, but the cast’s willingness to commit to even the dumbest material is admirable, a bright spot among an otherwise dull offering.
- “I’m Getting Paid How Much?!” Inexplicable Cameo Award: My wife has a long-standing crush on Donnie Wahlberg, which is basically what got her through watching this slog. However, I’m giving it up to Don Rickles, as the voice of a frog, because it regrettably marked his last role before his death.
- Just Go With It — The Happy Madison Promise: Whenever a Happy Madison protagonist has anything semi-important to say — usually to the antagonist — a large crowd must gather to cheer him on, no matter how improbable it is. Here, it occurs when Griffin quits his job at the car dealership in the end.
- Fart Joke Counter: Color me shocked that there are no fart jokes — human or otherwise — in Zookeeper.
- The Walkout Test: Easy pass.
- NEXT TIME: Start the countdown now, because I have some thoughts on Nick Swardson and Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star.