Kevin James has developed an irresistible screen persona as a nice-guy/underdog, which has served him well in some pretty mediocre films like Paul Blart: Mall Cop. In that context, Zookeeper is a quantum leap forward, a likable, PG-rated comedy that parents and kids can enjoy together. Is it formulaic? Absolutely. Does it pass muster as entertaining summer family fare? Yes it does, and compared to some of the sludge now polluting multiplexes, it positively shines.
James, who co-wrote the script with four collaborators, plays a dedicated zookeeper at Boston’s Lincoln Park Zoo. After five years he still hasn’t gotten over being—
—dumped by girlfriend Leslie Bibb, who never respected his job (among other things), so when she comes back into his orbit he’ll do anything it takes to impress her. Meanwhile, he is blissfully unaware that his true soul-mate is working right alongside him, veterinarian Rosario Dawson.
The gimmick in this simple (one might even say simplistic) story is that the zoo animals, who appreciate James’ thoughtful treatment, band together to help him in his romantic pursuit—and reveal to him, for the first time, their ability to speak in human voices. This adds another dimension to the film, with such readily identifiable voices as Sylvester Stallone, Nick Nolte, and the film’s producer Adam Sandler emanating from the mouths of various wild animals. The humor is broad and basic, but it works. Kids will enjoy the sheer novelty of it, while grownups will get a chuckle hearing a lioness with the voice of Cher.
With all of this window dressing, the movie still rests on the shoulders of James and his ability to make us root for him. In spite of various story contrivances we do, on the most elemental level, and that’s why Zookeeper clicks.