It's tough to engage in a thoughtful discussion of Adam Sandler and Kevin James' Zookeeper. Like most other Happy Madison productions, it's formulaic to a fault in its depiction of an underdog (of the gigolo, redneck or in this case, chubby schlub persuasion) searching for acceptance and fulfillment only to stumble upon true love along the way. When the blueprint works, we get passable, matinee-worthy junk like Mr. Deeds and Anger Management. When it goes wrong, though, it goes there disastrously. With Zookeeper, it feels like Sandler and company stuck to the recipe but used sour milk.
The plot is simple enough that viewers will be charting its contours from the very first frames. It begins with lovable zookeeper Griffin Keyes (James) proposing to his girlfriend Stephanie (Leslie Bibb) at the beach. He's a sweet guy and the setting he's constructed is almost goofily saccharine, with the steed that they roam the beach on and the pastel sunset smeared along its horizon. To no one's surprise but Griffin's, however, she declines, citing reasons of chubby schlubliness. We fast-forward to a few years later and see that although Griffin is still working his dream job as a zookeeper, his personal life is a shambles. He's lonely and the only pals he seems to have are the animals who populate his zoo and the other people who take care of them, including cute fellow zookeeper Kate (Rosario Dawson) who may or may not - but probably may - be secretly in love with him.
Just when his life hits a nadir, though, Griffin's brother (Nat Faxon) offers him a high-paying gig at his car dealership. This new development attracts the attention of Stephanie once more and Griffin needs to choose between the job of his dreams and the woman of them. In his desperate attempt to win Stephanie back, he'll have to do battle with a more recent ex (Joe Rogan) and take dating advice from some very unlikely sources - the wacky, talking animals at his zoo! As if Griffin didn't already have enough to deal with, all of this is further complicated by a bizarre, animal abuse subplot involving Donnie Wahlberg and a gorilla voiced by Nick Nolte. Yes, really.
The problems with Zookeeper are legion - from its flat, humorless script to its strange, seemingly drawn-from-a-hat voice cast - but the thing that really hinders the film is its schizophrenic tone. James is an endearing lead and he does his best to traipse the tightrope between the film's disparate elements, but there's rot somewhere deep within Zookeeper's foundation. Just as one struggles to imagine the child who would become invested in Griffin's romantic quandary, it's hard to fathom any adult who would thrill at a grating, know-it-all monkey voiced by Adam Sandler. Therein lies the problem - it feels as if the filmmakers never figured out whether they wanted to make a film for kids or adults and, in the end, did neither. Zookeeper spends the majority of its 102-minute runtime treading water in a muddled purgatory. It's also worth noting that Zookeeper's credit block lists no less than five(!) contributing writers - a telling and cryptic sign.
The only thing that truly works in Zookeeper is Kevin James' Griffin, a role that he can't be faulted for playing ad infinitum because he does it so well. In the film's more interminable moments (of which there are many) James' buoyant energy is the only thing keeping it afloat, like a stoic captain on a sinking ship. Still, it's not enough to breathe a spark of life into this barren husk of a film. Like its titular character, Zookeeper should have been shot down upon proposal.
Although the film is adequately wrought, there's a stink of capitalism that haunts each of its nooks and crannies. Just because Sandler and James had the clout to make this picture doesn't mean that they should have. It's the worst kind of bad movie in the sense that it doesn't even fail spectacularly. There are no real risks here and, conversely, no rewards.
Zookeeper's 2.40:1 image is well represented on this disc with a rich and colorful transfer. Cool blues and warm oranges glow incandescent on the screen, set against deep, dark blacks and the resulting picture is nice and cozy. There are occasional signs of pixilation, but nothing that distracts or overwhelms. Overall, this is an admirable effort.
The disc boasts an adequate - if slightly underwhelming - Dolby 5.1 mix that gets the job done and not a whole lot more. Vocals occasionally ring hollow and have a tendency to drown in Rupert Gregson-Williams' overbearing score, but for the most part, Zookeeper has a passable, multi-dimensional sound.
Zookeeper has a quaint collection of supplemental material that should satisfy younger viewers while leaving something to be desired for their cinema savvy folks. The first featurette, entitled "Laughing is Contagious" (5:57) is a short and consistently unfunny gag reel that mostly consists of Kevin James making faces at the camera. One gets the impression that the best behind-the-scenes gaffes were left on the cutting room floor, with most of the inserts presented here being of the sterile variety. The second featurette is entitled "Bernie the Gorilla" (7:14) and this one fares a little better, providing the viewer with an interesting look and the construction and performance of its titular subject. Effects veterans Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. guide us through the logistics of puppeteering a gorilla on film and the challenges that come along with it. While the segment isn't particularly deep, there are some interesting tidbits here for SFX junkies and it's presented in a fun and breezy way. Next up is a collection of three short vignettes under the banner of "Creating the Visual Effects." They run 8:51 altogether and are broken up into the categories of "Making the Animals Talk," "Animal Meeting," and "Riding an Ostrich." In spite their spartan runtime, these shorts are fairy in-depth and it's humbling to see how much hard work and coordination has gone into the construction of this film. Ultimately, you'll find yourself wishing that the talent involved had been given a better film to funnel their resources into. Last but not least is a featurette entitled "The Furry Co-Stars." Here, the cast and crew reminisce on the time spent on set with their animal companions. There are some funny anecdotes here and it seems like everyone who worked on this film had a genuinely good time, so maybe the thing wasn't a total wash.
Considering the talent involved in front of and behind the camera - not to mention the film's $80 million budget - it's a shame that Zookeeper didn't turn out better than it did. Unfortunately, the film's slipshod script and nebulous tone render it nearly unwatchable. Viewers would do better to save their cash for a trip to the zoo, where the monkeys won't scream at you in Adam Sandler's voice for two hours.