The animals at one particular zoo decide to break their code of silence in order to help their lovable zookeeper gain the attention of one particular woman.
Griffin Keyes (Kevin James) is the best zookeeper in the world, or at least the animals he takes care of think so. So much so, in fact, that when the 'one who got away' (Leslie Bibb) comes back into his life they decide to break their cardinal rule and let him know they can talk in order to teach him what it takes to get a girl.
Kevin James may be one of the funniest guys to keep making consistently unfunny movies. It's a curse that tends to strike Saturday Night Live alums a lot, but James seems to skipped right over the live TV and gone right to making the mediocre sitcoms and bad movies. It's shame because he really does have a lot of talent.
Most of it tends to get channeled into humiliation humor, where the joke revolves around putting the comic into the most embarrassing situations possible and then watching them squirm. James actually is quite skilled at that particular brand of comedy—he has been doing it on television and film for more than decade now—mixing subtlety with just the right touch of outlandishness and downplayed reaction.
Griffin's trouble's begin with what may be the most romantic marriage proposal anyone has ever come up with, including a sunset beach, a message in a bottle, and mariachi band. After going to an immense amount of trouble and putting together a heartfelt proposal, and being turned down because he's just a zookeeper, he has to ride back to civilization with his ex-girlfriend and then go off to find some other meaning in his life.
That is genuinely funny, with just the right balance between concept and execution, execution which is gradually amped up and up and up. Unfortunately it's the last genuinely funny joke in "Zookeeper's" 100-plus minutes.
The problem is James' (and the four other people it somehow took to write "Zookeeper") version of going over the top, rather than ramping up the concept, usually involves adding some sort of bodily fluid. Scatological humor done right can work but it takes a lot of timing and an understanding that just the adding of pee or poop to a scene doesn't automatically make it funny. These are subtleties beyond the "Zookeeper" gang.
After resigning himself back to a life as Lead Zookeeper, a life Griffin genuinely enjoys, his world is thrown into chaos again when Stephanie comes back on the rebound and he has to decide if leaving the zoo to get her back is the right move. Cue grown man being slathered with lion saliva and getting caught peeing in a potted plant at a wedding reception.
There's probably something to be said about the problem of a man who feels more comfortable around animals than people trying to figure out how to make an actual connection to a human being, but that's far more than "Zookeeper" is interested in or capable of.
Because it's lazy. With frequent Adam Sandler collaborator Frank Coraci at the helm you can expect an assault of lazy jokes and a ham-handed message about being true to yourself. Even the conceit of the animal's actually talking is just an excuse for James to indulge in bad physical comedy, which doesn't play to his strengths at all. Nor is there much surprise to be expected as the introduction of Griffin's co-worker Kate, played by Rosario Dawson, immediately tells you how the story is going to go.
Despite some interesting moments when Griffin finally decides to embrace his inner Alpha-male, mostly "Zookeeper" is just rote. A complete lack of effort by all involved doubles down on the genuine sadness of watching a real talent waste himself.