Keep This One for the Kiddies; “Zookeeper” is For the Birds

Movie Review by Joey Nolfi originally published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 7/8/2011

The American film industry basically can be reduced to three or four primary categories. Franchise sequels, films that favor explosions instead of plot (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay), and family films with talking animals seem to dominate the local megaplex and national box office alike.

The latest effort from Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison production company, “Zookeeper,” unsurprisingly contains enough furry, phonetically inclined little buggers to simultaneously place children into fits of comedic bliss while putting literary and cinematic adaptations of “Dr. Dolittle” to deep shame.

Populating the Franklin Park Zoo within “Zookeeper” is a host of critters with a long-standing code that prohibits them from talking to humans, who simply “wouldn’t understand” them. At this point it remains unclear whether this is meant literally or on a much more philosophical level of Avril Lavigne-esque teen rebellion.

Anyway, the animals (voiced by Sylvester Stallone, Cher and Mr. Sandler) observe their affectionate but romantically challenged caretaker Griffin Keyes (Kevin James) during the day and break out of their cages at night to meet, exchange witty one-liners for the camera and discuss how to help their beloved human companion woo a potential mate.

Apparently Keyes is unaware that copies of “Relationships for Dummies” exist, while the Franklin Park Zoo seemingly is the only such establishment in the world that doesn’t operate a night crew. Or install paddock alarms.

But such questioning of realistic ideals is hardly necessary for a film like this, seeing as a 3-year-old is fully willing to suspend disbelief for 104 minutes without a single gripe. “Zookeeper” is a lighthearted, harmless afternoon at the movies for the hordes of families that will be drawn to it like lions to a straggling zebra.

As a casual filmgoer, however, the film’s shortcomings will disappoint.

The film is not so much a “film” but rather a series of forced comedic vignettes. Compartmentalized sequences designed to make you laugh, loosely tied together by that bitch of a device called “editing”, which gives narratives a certain, you know, flow.  Let’s just say that flow is not a strength in “Zookeeper”.

Mr. James, who’s clearly being groomed as the next poster child for Happy Madison as Mr. Sandler finally outgrows these types of roles, lacks a proper balance between effective comedic punch and in-your-face ham. He’s annoying at times, as is watching Rosario Dawson bring spark to a wafer-thin role you’d think she would’ve laughed out of her script pile five years ago. My, how industry dynamics have changed.

The mix of slapstick high jinks and lowbrow potty humor, key ingredients in any family comedy, hits home in a few spots and saves the overall package — which also suffers odd pacing issues and all-too-familiar plot elements — from being completely for the birds.

“Zookeeper” won’t be fulfilling anyone’s expectations as critics’ indie darling. It is, however, a film that succeeds in doing what it aims to: keeping the kids entertained (and in one place) for the better part of an hour and a half.

And I guess sometimes (and only sometimes) is seeing a gorilla in a T-shirt still be funny.

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