Animals have more acute senses than people do and an entirely different way of looking at things, so it stands to reason that audiences have been lapping up talking animal stories since that snake was introduced in the first act of Genesis. Hollywood really pricked up its ears back in ’98, when the Dr. Dolittle remake starring Eddie Murphy became the highest grossing live-action film ever made in the genre. That’s when the industry started tossing them out like so many chew-toys: the Babe sequel, Stuart Little, Narnia… and that doesn’t even count animation.
Now, along comes Zookeeper, which has more than a few things in common with the good Doctor: a depressed animal that needs tender loving care, a know-it-all beast that dispenses good advice when necessary, a really annoying creature that talks too much, and a likable human being — in this case played by Kevin James — who has less success with his own species than he does with his furry friends. Dr. Dolittle and Zookeeper both go for the laughs, but both also play as wish-fulfillment for the odd duck within us all — the one that craves a little primal understanding when we don’t quite fit in.
But how to deliver on that premise, and which film does it best? Here’s some advice to the filmmakers straight from the horses’ (and lions’ and tigers’ and bears’) mouths: Mark your territory, strut like a bear, keep your chest out, and most importantly, be yourself. It’s time to face off in the Smackdown snakepit, so keep it wild and woolly, and may the best film win.
Five years after Griffin Keyes’ beautiful girlfriend (Leslie Bibb) gave him the boot, he still can’t forget her. How does Griffin plan on getting her back? He has absolutely no idea, and the animals he takes care of at the zoo can tell. As a favor to their caretaker for being the best zookeeper in the joint, a team of zoo creatures, including an irritatingly talkative monkey (voiced by Adam Sandler, one of the film’s producers), makes an important decision to speak to Griffin, even though talking to humans is against the animal code.
While pursuing his ex, Griffin shares some laughs with fellow zoo worker, Kate (Rosario Dawson), also beautiful. Anyone who has seen a romantic comedy doesn’t need a cute giraffe to tell him where this is going. That’s right — self-conscious, insecure Griffin now has two sexy ladies to choose from, and it takes all the animals in the zoo to turn Griffin into an alpha male.
Frank Coraci, who’s had some previous success guiding Sandler (Click, The Wedding Singer), directs this menagerie, including voice work from Cher, Sylvester Stallone and Judd Apatow.
The Defending Champion
John Dolittle has a gem of a wife, two kids who look up to him, and a career he can be proud of. But when animals in his neighborhood discover they can communicate with him, John’s perfect home quickly becomes a haven for injured critters who need his help to get well. Eddie Murphy’s charm and ability to get laughs with almost anything he does are two big reasons for this film’s success. The chemistry between him and the young actresses playing his daughters (Kyla Pratt and Raven-Symone) adds heart to what could have been a strictly goofy movie.
Murphy’s Dolittle updates the 1967 Rex Harrison musical comedy by adding Jim Henson’s animatronics and some obligatory barnyard epithets. Betty Thomas directed the fine human cast, including Peter Boyle and Ossie Davis, from a screenplay by Nat Mauldin and Larry Levin, based on the classic Hugh Lofting stories. The film spawned a litter of sequels, three of which were released straight to DVD.
In theory, the law of averages holds that even a troop of monkeys, given enough time with computers, will eventually bang out a decent screenplay. Well, Zookeeper has five credited screenwriters, all human, and they didn’t quite pull this one off. Maybe they just needed more time.
Or maybe it’s that comedy is just too subjective. After all, a good car chase will make even the most cynical moviegoer sit on the edge of his seat. Parallel universes make people watch in wonder. But Kevin James singing with a gorilla in the front seat might not be very funny for all audiences. The same goes for Eddie Murphy giving a rat mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Some people laugh. Others cringe in their chairs, praying for the scene to be over.
Both films are buoyed by likable casts. James is a sympathetic underdog, who makes us believe he deserves the hot girl with his genuine nature. And does it ever get old to watch him fall into things, or on top of things, or even through things? Well, maybe, but here the pratfalls are well directed and funny. Rosario Dawson’s character, like the one she played in Clerks 2, is the friend who is compatible with the male protagonist in every way, but is ignored as a possible romantic partner. Dawson has a way of building chemistry, and you actually believe this gorgeous woman could be in love with a zookeeper, even if Griffin’s obliviousness toward her is a little tougher to accept.
By the same token, Murphy’s animal magnetism and wide grin are often enough to provoke a laugh, but Dolittle also has a few subplots that strengthen the film. John Dolittle has had a rocky relationship with his father since childhood, when the old man prevailed upon him to stop talking to animals. As an adult, John’s inter-species conversations get him sent to a mental institution. He loses quality time with his family, and he jeopardizes a huge business deal his hospital is in the midst of negotiating. In short, there is a lot to lose. What does Griffin Keyes have to lose? His friendship with the animals and the two girls he’s courting. They say love is everything, but these relationships don’t feel real enough to make us care.
I went into Zookeeper expecting Kevin James to be able to speak to animals, and well, I got what I expected. No twists or turns, ups or downs. It felt at times like a shaggy dog tale — more Noah’s ark than story arc. Everything that was said or done, felt unoriginal and uninspired. Dolittle, on the other hand, surprised me, clearly licking its competition. The endearing family subplot gave the film purpose, raising it above the level of cheap laughs. While the writing was not above criticism, it was at times meaningful. Even the dog had a few insightful words. Give this one to Dr. Dolittle, king of the Smackdown jungle.