I don’t think I can doubt Kevin James anymore. I doubted Paul Blart: Mall Cop, which turned out to be funny, and I highly doubted Zookeeper, his newest PG-rated, fat-guy-fall-down romp. It had a number of elements that I despise in most films: talking animals, animals rapping, blatant product placement… did I mention talking animals? Yet somehow, through James’ sweetness and earnest nature, the film works. Even the animals made me laugh. (Did I just say that?) The main story contains nice characters finding out that being nice is okay, and the script contains enough funny throwaway lines and gags to keep the guffaws coming as the plot is moving forward. It achieved an enormous feat: it made me put aside my pre-determined film critic biases and just let me have a good time.
We meet Griffin (Kevin James) five years before the film starts, proposing romantically to his girlfriend Stephanie (the improbably hot Leslie Bibb). She turns him down because, well… he’s a zookeeper. We then see his current situation, working as head zookeeper at Franklin Park Zoo, alongside Donnie Wahlberg, Ken Jeong, and Rosario Dawson, who hides in a homely zoo outfit until it’s time for her to put on a dress and reveal to Griffin that she’s actually beautiful. Stephanie comes back into Griffin’s life, and reiterates that she’d be interested… if he wasn’t a zookeeper. He contemplates leaving, which makes the animals break their code of silence and tell Griffin he has to stay.
Oh, you didn’t know animals could talk? They do: two lions (Sylvester Stallone and Cher), a giraffe (Maya Rudolph), an elephant (Judd Apatow), two bears (Jon Favreau and Faizon Love), a tiny monkey (Adam Sandler, natch)… and most importantly, Bernie the Gorilla (Nick Nolte). Bernie’s all alone and depressed, and Griffin goes out of his way to make Bernie feel better, including a trip to TGIFriday’s. Why TGIFriday’s? Because they paid the most to have a scene set at their restaurant. The animals try to help teach Griffin their animalistic seduction techniques, none of which really work. When he’s advised to act like a cool dude and insult her in between compliments, Stephanie starts falling for him again… except for that pesky zookeeper job. So Griffin has a choice: change his life entirely to be with Stephanie, or stay at the zoo with the animals who love him and Rosario Dawson? Okay, we know how it will end.
But so what? Look, nearly every PG live-action film I’ve seen in my lifetime is utterly predictable. The point isn’t the surprise of the journey, the point is how much fun the journey is, and the proceedings are kept light and breezy. There’s good banter between the animals, mostly silly and irreverent, without going overboard. The mere idea of Stallone’s voice coming from a lion is funny, the Favreau/Love oneupsmanship amused me, and a cameo by Don Rickles got a hearty chuckle from even the crowd who didn’t know it was Don Rickles. Sandler of course gets most of the best lines, and even though it’s a standard “Sandler silly voice,” it fits this film. The best voice, without question, is Nolte’s Tom-Waits-esque vocal performance as Bernie, suggesting a hard life, immediately earning him our sympathies. The final twenty minutes, in which Bernie is heavily featured, are especially amusing, because the friendship between Griffin and Bernie has been established. (Special note should be made of Ken Jeong, who is much funnier here than in Transformers 3 or Hangover 2, reminding us why his presence in comedies, especially in small doses, is invaluable.)
The main reason why this film works is the main reason why Paul Blart: Mall Cop worked– Kevin James is an appealing movie star. The image he’s cultivated for himself is endearing; the gentle big man, the well-to-do klutz, the schmo you root for. Many of these gags shouldn’t work. When James tries his hand at being a car salesman and starts growling and walking like a bear to scare off the other salesman, that shouldn’t be funny. But it is. The idea of your lead actor becoming a jerk for 15 minutes of film shouldn’t stay funny. But it does. The moment in which James realizes that Dawson is beautiful and tells her so shouldn’t be a cute moment; it’s so manufactured and cliched that there’s no WAY we should find it cute. But we do. These movies have heart, and unlike nearly all other PG-rated live-action comedies aimed at kids, they don’t rely on an abundance of pee, poop, and fart jokes (I counted two instances of this in an 100-minute movie, when normally there’s two instances of this in the trailer alone). They also never feel like they’re exploiting James’ fatness for laughs– instead of feeling like the film is mocking how fat its star is (which some of Chris Farley’s films ended up doing), these treat it as merely another thing our friend is struggling with. And he is our friend. James is two-for-two with these films, and while I’d rather see him tackle a better script or more original comedy, he can make movies worse than Zookeeper passable for the foreseeable future.