July 9, 2011



ZOOKEEPER – Not Even For Free:  Isn’t There An ASPCA For Audiences?


Let’s put off talking about ZOOKEEPER–it’s terrible, for those with no time to spare–by mentioning the trailer for Adam Sandler’s upcoming Jack & Jill that’s attached to it (both movies are produced by Sandler’s production company Happy Madison and released by Sony).  While it’s naturally unfair to judge a picture that won’t be opening until November based on 2 minutes of footage, the trailer was created for the express purpose of generating audience enthusiasm, so it’s not completely out of place to say that Jack & Jill, in which Sandler plays twins–one of them female–and thus shares the screen with himself in drag, looks like one of the worst movies ever made.  Actually, it’s more specific than that:  Jack & Jill resembles nothing so much as one of the “Sandler” parodies that dotted Judd Apatow’s Funny People; it even has in-joke celebrity cameos by Katie Holmes and Al Pacino.  Watching that trailer is the Razzie equivalent of seeing the previews for a movie like The King’s Speech:  even as it’s playing, you think How is this movie not winning awards?


But I digress.   And I’ll continue to do so by noting the marketing campaign for Zookeeper, which has itself been very curious.  The movie is basically A Night At the Museum meets Hitch:  the titular zoo employee (Kevin James) discovers that when no one is looking, the animals in his care become an all-star cast of celebrity voices, and they band together to help improve his inept dating life.  You’d expect a picture like this to be sold to kids and their mothers, but as anyone who watches sports on TV (or goes to websites like knows, Sony has been massively selling it to guys, with ads blanketing the NBA playoffs and other broadcasts.  Was James’ Paul Blart a magnet for male audiences?  Is it the Sandler connection?  No one will question the strategy if the movie does a big number this weekend (Mitch Metcalf’s prediction is $24M), but it’s an interesting approach

OK, fine:  time to talk about the movie.  Zookeeper is directed by Frank Coraci, one of Happy Madison’s 2 house directors (Dennis Dugan, who handled Jack & Jill, is the other).  His pictures for the label include The Wedding Singer, The Waterboy and Click, all of them hits (Wedding Singer was even pretty good) but none exactly a showcase for the Auteur Theory.  It’s written by a conglomerate of screenwriters:  James, Nick Bakay, Rock Reuben, Jay Scherick and David Ronn, who between them couldn’t come up with better than a collection of witless animal gags and cliched rom-com storylines (James is pathetically in love with WASPy Leslie Bibb and doesn’t even notice the adorable Rosario Dawson, as a zoo vet, under his nose).

Coraci doesn’t seem capable of composing an interesting shot, but he also doesn’t seem to care.  He’s there to make sure the CG and animatronic animals work, which they mostly do, and to let James milk his lovable schlemiel persona.  Most of the animals (Cher, Jon Favreau, Maya Rudolph, Jim Breuer, Don Rickles and Judd Apatow himself) are there for quips only, the exceptions being Sylvester Stallone, wry as the local lion; Sandler, who contributes his high-pitched Old Jewish Man voice as a monkey; and especially Nick Nolte, as a gorilla who becomes James’ sidekick and has a storyline that comes to include one of the most blatant product placements in film history and unfortunately also some jarring physical mistreatment of the animals (parents, take note).

There’s little charm and less laughter in all this.  James showed real skill in Hitch and a fumbling Everyman quality in Paul Blart, but Happy Madison isn’t a place for moderation, so his character quickly becomes strained and overly silly here (when he takes Dawson to his brother’s wedding to make Bibb jealous, it’s not long before he’s splitting his pants, knocking over an ice sculpture and doing a gorilla imitation).  Dawson and Bibb have different extremes of thankless roles, although there’s the occasional moment between James and Dawson that suggests they could have had romantic chemistry in a movie with a half-decent script.  The other humans are barely present, and the plotting is awful and twelfth-hand:  yes, James has to chase down the love of his life on her way to the airport.

Parents who are tempted to bring their kids to Zookeeper should also be aware that there are long stretches when those cute talking animals are off screen, and the movie is a relatively straight (and not very good) romantic comedy.  Sports fans:  you’re on your own, but ESPN Classic must be airing some 10-year old college football bowl game that’d be more fun to watch.  Say this for Zookeeper, though–it’s not Jack & Jill.


(ZOOKEEPER – Sony/MGM – PG – 103 minutes – Director:  Frank Coraci – Script:  Nick Bakay, Kevin James, Rock Reuben, Jay Scherick, David Ronn – Cast:  Kevin James, Rosario Dawson, Leslie Bibb, Donnie Wahlberg, Nick Nolte, Sylvester Stallone, Adam Sandler, Cher, Jon Favreau, Judd Apatow – Wide Release)

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."