You have to enter with low expectations. This is an Adam Sandler comedy, and Kevin James is in his overweight, slightly bewildered, and occasionally overwhelmed Everyman persona. He plays Griffin, who works at the zoo, and is one of those “gentle with animals” guys who talks to them when he feeds them, brings them little gifts just to do something nice for them, and they are obviously responding to his caring presence. But Griffin has personal problems, when it comes to relating to humans.
It seems he’d proposed to good-looking girlfriend, Leslie (Stephanie Bibb), but she not only rejected him, she dumped him. So Griffin has been moping around for oh, about five years, but he does have a good working relationship with the zoo’s veterinarian, Kate (Rosario Dawson). When Griffin suddenly bumps into Leslie again at his brother’s wedding, he swoons all over again, and wonders aloud how he can attract her attention once more.
The animals, who only talk when the humans aren’t around, decide to break their code of silence in order to give Griffin some friendly advice. At first, of course, Griffin has to get over the fact that they can talk (and actually gather together every night to visit each other with the help of the monkey who picks all the locks on the gates). The animals, naturally, all have different advice: the frog says he should puff up, well, like a toad. The female lion (the voice of Cher , no less), advises him to make Leslie jealous by showing up at the wedding reception with another girl. The male lion (the voice of Sylvester Stallone, which is a very interesting matchup with Cher ), predictably, advises him to stand down his rival and then separate her from the herd and move in for the “kill.” The wolf advises him to “mark his territory” publicly, which is another opportunity for little sight gags. The bears think he ought to alternate being nice to her and being mean to her, with the supposed result that he will be in control of the relationship. This last one plays out a little strange, and goes against the “feel good” mantra of the whole. You’re supposed to be intentionally mean to people to get them to like you?
Finally, Griffin decides to ask Kate to accompany him to the reception, and they enjoy some luminously funny moments, but somehow Griffin doesn’t realize Kate’s attentions are more than just an act for Leslie’s benefit. Meanwhile, Griffin finally accepts that car salesman job that his brother has been hounding him about, and after some initial success (where we get to see some more of Kevin James, the comedian, cutting loose), Griffin soon realizes how unhappy he is not being around the animals, and also around Kate. We all know how it’s going to end. But he didn’t have to be mean to Leslie as a kind of payback in kind, and revenge in full, did he?
Sure, it could have been funnier. It was uneven, determinedly puerile, and at times just plain awkward, as most Adam Sandler movies are (he played the monkey who kept making poop jokes). But, also like most Adam Sandler movies, there’s a certain populist charm here, as well, and an easygoing kind of romanticism that feels comfortable, and uncomplicated.
“Zookeeper” won’t win any awards, but is a harmless popcorn movie for the whole family.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Co-Pastor, United Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas