“In the wild, I would never let an opponent dictate the outcome,” announces Joe the lion (voiced by Sylvester Stallone). A human named Griffin (played by Kevin James) stares at him, dumbfounded. It’s not that the lion is speaking to him—for this fantasy is long since established in Zookeeper—but that Joe has never been “in the wild.” Joe listens as Griffin lays out his history: born in the zoo, bottle-fed by Griffin, never once outside his enclosure. Besides, Griffin piles on, even in the wild, it’s the female lions who do all the work, the “hunting and the fighting.” Here the camera cuts from the boys to Joe’s life partner, Janet, voiced by Cher.
While it’s hardly worth gauging which voice actor has the worst job in Zookeeper (though my vote would be for Maya Rudolph, as a giraffe), it’s clear that not one of them comes out okay. Everyone knows that voice-acting in cartoons is an easy payday and that some celebrities say they’re happy to make movies their children will enjoy. Neither applies in this case. There’s not a good reason in the world to have made this movie.
The plot is even more irrelevant than in other projects affiliated with Adam Sandler. Griffin is humiliated in the first three minutes when Stephanie (Leslie Bibb) rejects his marriage proposal. Five years later, he sees her again, and oh dear, he starts thinking he must have her back. At first, he seeks advice from his brother Dave (Nat Faxon), but when all he comes up with is a job offer at his utterly awful car dealership (more money = wife), Griffin looks elsewhere. Namely, to the animals under his care at the zoo.
The film dispenses with the usual effort to explain how the animals can talk—no one’s conked on the head, no one finds a magic key or stumbles on a hidden after-hours world. These creatures just talk all the time, and once they decide to help Griffin win back his girl, they talk to him. Their conversations, with and without Griffin, are excruciatingly dumb: the monkey (Sandler) shows off his thumbs, the elephant (Judd Apatow) can’t stick to a diet, and the giraffe explains Stephanie’s thinking—when it’s plain that Stephanie has none.
Once the gimmick is kicked into place, the movie keeps on stumbling. In a series of scenes that recall the execrable The Animal, he tries on a variety of approaches: the lion tells him to bully his smarmy rival (Fear Factor host Joe Rogan), the bears (Jon Favreau and Faizon Love) urge him to be a “predator,” to wave his paws and show off his “pudding cup,” and the wolf (Bas Rutten) trains him to pee on his territory. The only advice Griffin does not take is offered by the monkey: “Throw poop at her.”
On top of the physical antics, Zookeeper also mimics and makes fun of a buddy comedy formula (not unlike, say, Night at the Museum, the movie it most obviously wants to be). The buddy here is the gorilla Bernie (voiced by Nick Nolte and acted by two other guys), who first appears looking depressed, not unlike our hero. They bond over their different losses (Stephanie, a cage with a view), and they both love T.G.I. Fridays: in an extended montage sequence, we witness the vast and numbing stupidity of that establishment’s patrons, as waitstaff and pool players and busty ladies spend long hours laughing and drinking and believing Bernie is a man in a suit.
On the other hand, so you don’t worry that maybe Griffin is gay for Bernie, he is in fact provided an appropriate female mate, that is, the Not-Stephanie. Kate (Rosario Dawson, luminous again despite her tawdry surroundings) works as a vet at the zoo. She’s smart and gracious and sweet, and crucially, she sees something in Griffin he doesn’t see in himself, in this case, that he’s awesome with the animals. “You’re like the frickin’ hippo whisperer!” she cheers, even as he’s still imagining he loves Stephanie and maybe wants to quit the zoo so he can put her up in a swank penthouse (the gig at the dealership apparently pays very well).
Though it hardly matters when or how or even if Griffin sorts out his professional skills and emotional desires, you might pause, just for a moment, to wonder again how girls get into these messes. From Carla Gugino to Amy Adams to Leslie Mann to Katherine Heigl, from Drew Barrymore to Jessica Biel to Paz Vega, and yes, to Cher too, girls again and again put up with boys who behave badly, callously, self-importantly and—increasingly, it seems—immaturely. Yes they get paid. But we all pay.