From time to time, we critics like to make up our own personal movie rules. We do so not because the artform needs them or because we can't do our job without them. No, the current cinema is so predictable (and as a result, pathetic) that said standards struggle not to be recognized. A perfect example of this ideal is "The Rule of Three". In essence, it's journalistic shorthand for a movie that (1) has potential, (2) fails to recognize its possibilities, and limits, and (3) as a result, careens wildly out of control without ever once stopping to see what it could be doing better, or avoiding what is bad. Put another way, it's the concept of a good idea done poorly. In the case of Kevin James' latest attempted crowd-pleaser, Zookeeper, we play directly into the Rule's real meaning. This is a potentially smart and solid comedy premise preyed upon by flawed creative direction and even more baffling artistic approaches. What should be a gimme becomes a motion picture Mulligan, a bomb that requires a great deal of forgiveness to work...if it ever does.
Five years before, lonely zookeeper Griffin Keyes (Kevin James) asked pretentious if pretty gal pal Stephanie (Leslie Bibb) for her hand in marriage. She flat out rejected him. He didn't take it well. Now he's the still single head of the animal helpers at the small Franklin Park Zoo in Boston where he works with such odd eccentrics as Venom (Ken Jeong), a reptile expert, Shane (Donnie Wahlberg), a ruffian with an abusive tendency toward the critters, and pert vet Kate (Rosario Dawson). Offering the facility for his brother's pre-wedding party, he is stunned when Stephanie returns...and shows some interest. Believing that the only way to win her back is via quitting his position and becoming a high priced import car salesman, Griffin's new plans are overheard by members of the zoo community...who instantly rally around to help him out. That's right, the animals can talk and they are giving romantic advice to our lovelorn load. In the meantime, Griffin and Kate become very close, while the former hopes to help a depressed gorilla (voiced by Nick Nolte) to rediscover his joy.
There are three precise moments when Zookeeper falls apart - and oddly enough, none involve a certain chain restaurant. The first arrives when James, ever loveable as a portly animal expert, is required to race against co-star Joe Rogan (as douche competition for Stephanie) as part of some wedding group bicycle outing. Up until then, the film has been a frumpy if enduring attempt at giving an unusual face to the usually featureless RomCom. Sure, we've had some awkward moments of physical comedy before this (James attempting to jump a barrier between himself and a lion) but it's at this point where director Frank Coraci (The Wedding Singer, The Waterboy) decides to drop all pretense and aim for a wacky family action effort. It doesn't work. The shift between actors and stunt men is obvious and the whole thing feels odd and out of place. The second sequence is equally unsettling. Griffin has brought his foreshadowed intended (played with unnecessary pluck by Ms. Dawson) to his brother's wedding. Im a panic, the duo decide to "dance" to a slow song using hanging draperies as a means of "flying." James gets lost in the moment and actually lifts himself up to soar around the room before...you guessed it, dropping to the ground and embarrassing himself. More stupid slapstick. Another death nail in the Zookeeper's coffin.
But perhaps the most egregious moment arrives at the end. Having befriended a mountain gorilla (voiced by Nick Nolte while essayed by an obvious man in an animatronic suit) who longs for freedom and the chance to salvage his savage reputation (don't ask), our hefty hero grabs a van, inserts the ape inside it, and heads out to stop Dawson (who is going to Nairobi for a job...again, don't ask). When they can't get past a particular roadblock/traffic jam, our hairy beast and his buddy do a mini-King Kong, Bernie carrying Griffin up the side of a bridge and directly over the cab carrying his wannabe honey. It's hilariously awful, a sequence of such illogic and narrative ridiculousness that if highlights everything else that's wrong here. What James and his massive team of collaborators had was a kinda cute high concept in which a lonely schlub receives relatively pointless advise from his four legged charges, only to discover they way to a woman's heart on his own. Instead, the gaggle of screenwriting grease monkeys mimic every bad idea the cinematic kid id lexicon has to offer. Instead of being novel and inventive, it's preprogrammed beats and lots of voice work stunt casting.
Indeed, the most disheartening thing about Zookeeper is watching its limited potential get pissed away. Certainly, the notion of talking animals is nothing new and - all Dr. Doolittle updating aside - fraught with funny business pitfalls. But James can be a sweet screen presence, the kind of guy you root for in spite of his often unconscionable screw-ups. And while she definitely deserves better, Dawson can make any material shine. Her sunny personality and natural allure should be a benefit, not a detriment. Instead, our hero is hampered by insipid ideas (a gorilla passing for a costume party guest and having a ball at the local TGI Fridays? Really?) while being surrounded by some very talented people (Sylvester Stallone, Cher, Maya Rudolph) who don't get enough time to strut their own stuff. Zookeeper may work for the smallest of audience members, those not interested in anything complex or clever. For everyone else, this will be like a day climbing out the monkey cages. Avoiding the piles of pooh is difficult indeed.
Since this is a big budget American motion picture from 2011, Zookeeper should look pretty darn good, on the HD format right? Well, it does...up to a point. While a tad flat and lifeless, the actual image is excellent. Sporting a 2.40:1 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encode, the colors pop and the details are definitely there. In fact, you can barely tell when CG is used to manipulate the real animals' mouths, and the computer generated creatures look real as well. Overall, the image lives up to the notion of Tinseltown spending megabucks on their movies, and getting something special in return - at least visually.
Once again, the DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless soundtrack is fairly excellent. Granted, it really goes overboard during the various slapstick/action sequences and fills the speakers up with popular songs from the '70s and '80s, but overall, the mix is polished and professional. The dialogue is always front and center and easy to hear, never getting lost in the background noise or locational ambience, and it balances against and bounces off the musical score well. All in all, the tech specs here are first rate.
As part of the package, the Blu-ray comes with some very EPK oriented extras. We get a collection of deleted scenes (none of them necessary to our 'enjoyment' of the movie itself), a gag reel (revolving around James inability to keep a straight face between takes), and a slight Behind the Scenes (everyone is in full praise mode). There is also a look at the voice work, the animal actors cast, the physical effects used to create Bernie the gorilla, and the rest of the visual F/X. Toss in a few trailers, an overview of the stunts, and a demo for some Playstation 3 game and you have a decent if far from definitive collection of added content...not that a movie like this needs such supplementation in the first place.
In deciphering the drawbacks to this particular film, it's always important to remember the Rule of Three. Coraci and Company had potential here. James is an endearing presence and he's surrounded by a solid supporting cast and even when the animals go into dopey Dr. Phil mode, we are willing to follow to see where it comes. Sadly, the answer is "Nowhere, over the course of 104 minutes." Earning a necessary Rent It, this is for those who'll forgive it's stars anything, that will overlook three (or four) incredibly flawed sequences to laugh at a monkey mocking a human. While it's hard to say if this idea would ever really work well, it does seem to suggest it would. Zookeeper is crap, but its friendly crap. It's also the Rule of Three all over again.
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