- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 7, 2011

There is a sweet family comedy lurking in the premise of “Zookeeper,” but sadly it fails to materialize.

The film stars Kevin James, best known as the blustery but good-hearted male lead in the sitcom “The King of Queens,” as Griffin Keyes, a lonely Boston zookeeper brooding over a spectacularly failed marriage proposal five years in the past.

Griffin happens to stumble into the biggest secret of his profession — that the zoo animals can talk. What’s more, the animals adore Griffin and want to use their native magnetism and courtship instincts to help him win back Stephanie, the attractive but soulless blonde who haunts his dreams.

So far, so good. The stage is set for a serviceable comedy that wrings laughs out of computer-enhanced animals with unmistakable celebrity voices — Nick Nolte, Cher and Sylvester Stallone among them.

But “Zookeeper” stumbles almost immediately, tripped up by an identity crisis: Does it want to be an earthy comedy for little kids with enough satire to maintain adult interest, or is it a PG version of a Judd Apatow romance with a chorus of talking animals?

In the end, director Frank Coraci and a team of five screenwriters (including Mr. James) couldn’t come up with an answer, leaving “Zookeeper” a hopeless muddle.

The movie follows the arc of a typical romantic comedy. Griffin idealizes the shallow, acquisitive Stephanie, failing to realize his fellow zookeeper Kate (Rosario Dawson) is the sort of authentic, fun-loving and caring person he ought to fall in love with.

Kate and the zoo’s CGI menagerie conspire to help Griffin beat his rival for Stephanie’s affections — a hostile and unpleasant blowhard played by the all-but-forgotten Joe Rogan. There’s also bromance amid the romance as Griffin works to win the trust of Bernie, an older, depressed gorilla (voiced by Mr. Nolte) who’s isolated in a kind of pit as a result of a violent interaction with another zookeeper (played by former New Kid on the Block Donnie Wahlberg).

There are a few more threads of plot woven into this already busy tapestry — so many that all the movie’s action is hurried along in a few critical and poorly executed scenes.

The part the kids will most enjoy — the talking animals — is a mixed bag. The voices are, for the most part, very good and the bickering between Mr. Stallone as a lion and Cher as a lioness is the most satisfying aspect of the film. But the actual animation — particularly the way the animals’ mouths move along with the dialogue — is not particularly well done.

There’s not a lot of children’s fare currently in theaters, so parents with young children may have to suffer through “Zookeeper” just to catch two hours of downtime in an air-conditioned space. But while there is a lot about romance and dating that very young kids won’t understand, “Zookeeper” won’t give them an accidental lesson on the birds and the bees.

★★

TITLE: “Zookeeper”

CREDITS: Directed by Frank Coraci. Screenplay by Nick Bakay, Rock Reuben, Kevin James, Jay Scherick and David Ronn

RATING: PG for some barnyard humor and fairly tame allusions to sexual behavior

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