Kevin James, right, and Jackie Sandler star in Columbia Pictures' comedy "Zookeeper."

AP Photo/Columbia Pictures-Sony

A couple weeks ago I reviewed "Mr. Popper's Penguins," a bland and predicable children's comedy. While "Mr. Popper's Penguins" was underwhelming, the film did have one redeeming quality that prevented it from being inexplicably awful: None of the penguins talked. "Zookeeper" on the other hand, makes the unwise choice to have its animal cast talk with the obnoxiously familiar voices of big stars. The end result is one of the year's dumbest comedies that makes any of the "Doctor Doolittle" movies look like "Babe." 

Kevin James plays Griffin Keyes, a hopelessly nice guy who embraces his job as a zookeeper. In the film's opening scene Griffin proposes to Stephanie, his stunning girlfriend played by Leslie Bibb. She rejects Griffin, however, because his profession turns her off. The fact that Griffin has hired a Mariachi band and planned a fireworks display for the proposal doesn't help. This is the one humorous scene in the movie. It's all downhill from here.

A few years pass and Griffin runs into Stephanie at his brother's engagement party. Old feelings are stirred up within Griffin and he becomes determined to win Stephanie back. His animal friends at the zoo reveal to Griffin that they all have the ability to talk and want to help him get the girl. After a day of thinking that he's gone crazy, Griffin quickly adjusts to the fact that animals can talk and accepts their help.

The animal cast includes Sylvester Stallone and Cher as a lion couple, Maya Rudolph as a giraffe, Judd Apatow as an elephant and Adam Sandler as a monkey with a voice like fingernails on a chalkboard. As you might have guessed from that lineup, the voice-over cast is completely random as if they just picked names out of a hat. The only voice that feels suited to its animal counterpart is Nick Nolte as Bernie the Gorilla. In the movie's most inexplicable sequence, Griffin takes Bernie out for a night on the town, telling everyone that he's merely wearing a gorilla costume. In the process the film gets in a lot of product placement for T.G.I. Fridays.

The fact that none of the animals ever have anything amusing to say doesn't help the film. But I will give "Zookeeper" this: As annoying as all the talking animals are here, not one of them is nearly as insufferable as Owen Wilson's ungodly abomination of Marmaduke.

James has been funny in a couple of movies like "Hitched" and "Monster House." But after "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," "I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry," "Grown-ups" and now "Zookeeper," James continues to prove that all he's good for is falling down and getting hit by heavy objects. While he's not an unlikable presence, he's not leading man material. He's the chubby best friend. Then again, his last couple movies have all been box office hits so what do I know? But one thing's for certain: James is no John Belushi, John Candy or Chris Farley.

The only performer who walks away from "Zookeeper" with any dignity is the always-appealing Rosario Dawson as a fellow zoo employee who you know that Griffin is really going to end up with. Unfortunately, Dawson is basically saddled with the generic girlfriend role who serves little purpose other than to be the love interest. Between Blake Lively in "Green Lantern" and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," this cookie-cutter character is really starting to become tiresome. All these actresses deserve better.

Then just when you think that "Zookeeper" can't get anymore unoriginal, the film works its way up to a climax where Griffin races to the airport to stop the love of his life from moving. You'd think that the presence of a talking gorilla riding shotgun would make the sequence a little more interesting and funny. But no.

The best word to describe "Zookeeper" is "lazy." You never get the sense that anybody involved with the picture made any effort to produce a remotely entertaining picture.

It's as if the filmmakers said, "We got Kevin James, he's a zookeeper and he talks to animals. There's a love story in there somewhere. We'll just throw in some slapstick and fill in holes as we go along."

Maybe the film will keep children occupied for an hour and a half when it comes out to DVD in a few months. Other than that, "Zookeeper" is instantly forgettable on every level. You'd have a better time visiting your local zoo. At least the animals there won't tell you bad jokes.

Nick Spake is a college student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at nspake@asu.edu.


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