★★ / ★★★★
Griffin (Kevin James), a zookeeper, takes his girlfriend, Stephanie (Leslie Bibb), to the beach on a horseback to propose marriage. She declines because she feels that he being zookeeper, though cute because of the uniform, is not a respectable profession for someone she hopes to spend the rest of her life with.
Five years later, Griffin is single and still a zookeeper. On his brother’s wedding, he spots Stephanie in the crowd and his feelings for her begin to resurface. It turns out the animals in the zoo (voiced by Nick Nolte, Adam Sandler, Sylvester Stallone, Cher, Judd Apatow, Jon Favreau, Faizon Love, Maya Rudolph, Bas Rutten) can speak to one another and understand human language so they hold a meeting on how to help Griffin get the girl.
Directed by Frank Coraci, “Zookeeper” has several snappy dialogue, mostly between the animals, but it does not quite reach its full comedic potential because it is often weighed down by a romance that is dead on arrival.
Griffin is a kind person, one who will go out of his way to make sure that a friend or an animal is doing well, but he is a pushover and somewhat unaware of what people think of him as well as what they really want from him. The picture spends most of its time showing Griffin desperately trying to win Stephanie back. She is so unlikable, the complete opposite of Kate (Rosario Dawson), the zoo’s veterinarian and Griffin’s good friend, to the point where their scenes leave me either cringing or annoyed.
Would it have taken much effort from the writers to have written both women as having good and bad qualities? That way, allowing a certain level of uncertainty might compel us to feel more involved. Since the characterization is so thin and one-dimensional, from the moment Kate appears on screen, we know that Stephanie will get what she deserves.
I wanted to see Griffin interact more with the talking animals. The film does a good job in allowing Griffin to get to know Bernie (Nolte), a sad gorilla who has isolated himself from the other animals. Their trip to T.G.I.F. is completely ludicrous but it worked for me because it shows Griffin’s ability to sympathize and accept unconditionally, qualities that Stephanie does not (or cannot) show toward our protagonist.
It is not and should not be about whether the situation is believable. If the material has talking animals, the filmmakers better be confident in going all the way. They are and, in its own peculiar way, it works. I wished the screenplay had also given Griffin a chance to interact with the other animals in a meaningful way. For example, there are several lines which suggest that the elephant is teased by the other animals for being overweight. Since the movie is supposed to be for kids, there could have been a lesson or two about making fun of someone for being too fat or too tall or too weird.
Nevertheless, “Zookeeper” manages to keep itself afloat. Some of the dialogue, like the line involving parrots, is smart and it is easy to root for Griffin to find happiness. It just requires a little bit more rhythm in balancing the offbeat and the charm.