Zookeeper - Ken Jeong, Kevin James and Rosario Dawson
Venom (Ken Jeong), Griffin Keyes (Kevin James) and Kate (Rosario Dawson) © 2011 Columbia TriStar

Zookeeper is basically a live-action Madagascar melded with a painfully predictable “schlub pining for the wrong girl when the right one is under his nose” rom-com. Funny talking animals, good. Not-so-funny talking humans, bad.

The fact that a Zookeeper trailer – yes, trailer – includes not one but two instances of apparent product placement doesn’t inspire much confidence that the movie as a whole will be brimming with originality and quality. (The full scene at the name-checked restaurant in question plays like a five-minute commercial.)

Zookeeper - Nick Nolte and Kevin James)
Bernie the Gorilla (Nick Nolte) and Griffin Keyes (Kevin James) © 2011 Columbia TriStar

Anyone who enjoys watching Kevin James do his amiably dumb but well-meaning slob schtick that dates back to his TV series The King of Queens may enjoy seeing him as an unlucky-at-love loser trying to win back the gold-digger who got away. Those who find him roughly as amusing as Jim Belushi on a bad day, however, will not have their opinions altered.

James plays zookeeper Griffin Keyes, whose shallow girlfriend Stephanie (Leslie Bibb) rejects his marriage proposal because she doesn’t think much of his job. Considering how much fitter and incredibly better looking Stephanie is than the bullet-headed and stocky man-child Griffin, his profession would seem to be the least of their compatibility issues. Griffin’s friendly zoo coworker Kate (Rosario Dawson) is almost as obviously out of his league, but she has a good heart. So the movie essentially involves waiting for Griffin’s moment of amorous enlightenment to occur.

Before that happens, he is stunned to discover that the animals at his place of business can talk. Not only that, they have personalities that make them more believable than the humans in the cast. Voice actors include Adam Sandler as a tauntingly superior and very funny monkey with a Louis Armstrong rasp, Nick Nolte as a melancholy and misjudged gorilla, Sylvester Stallone as an assertive but henpecked lion and Cher as his level-headed mate.

Aware of Griffin’s romantic desperation, the animals give him wild-kingdom-worthy courtship advice that mostly involves acting loudly overconfident and generally uncivilized. Griffin ends up urinating in a restaurant’s potted plant to mark his territory and impersonating a back-scratching bear. Paging Dr Dolittle, who should bring a sedative.

The movie’s weird and disturbing third act veers in an unpleasant direction when Griffin begins acting like a misogynistic jerk, and his intended conquest is won over by his rude abuse. It’s impossible to believe that the formerly sensitive and timid nice guy suddenly can become a self-centered and casually cruel Buddy Love. And the fact that any woman – even a dumbbell hottie – would react positively to his insults and demeaning demands isn’t exactly a good message for the kiddies.

Ken Jeong, who already has appeared in two blockbusters this year (The Hangover Part II and Transformers: Dark of the Moon) has a small role as a reptile expert named Venom. Another Hangover star is the Capuchin monkey voiced by Sandler.

All of the zoo residents except the animatronic gorilla are portrayed by actual animals with computer-generated mouths. The movie magic that makes them talk is up to the usual standard for movies dating back to Babe, and their expressive gestures are equally impressive.

What’s too bad is that the people parts of the movie aren’t as convincing, or nearly as entertaining, as a talking monkey.

[Rating: 1.5]

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.