BY STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Zookeeper is a surprisingly good time at the movies, or maybe it's just too hot outside for anything in air-conditioning to disappoint.
Anything top-lining a midtier comedian like Kevin James isn't promising, if you've paid attention to his career. Paul Blart: Mall Cop is what I was expected, and dreaded.
What Zookeeper delivers is smartly executed dumb summertime fun. A few moments even skirt genius, as far as that term can be applied to any silliness involving talking animals. (Racing Stripes and the Cats & Dogs flick, anyone? I don't think so.) Chiefly it works because James wisely plays second banana to a scene-stealing monkey and a guy in a gorilla suit.
James plays Griffin Keyes, whom we meet in perfect Hollywood fashion for an overweight guy. He's dating a hottie he shouldn't (Leslie Bibb) and getting devastated during the type of escalating marriage proposal that only someone expecting to hear "no" would attempt. It's a funny scene nonetheless, and an encouraging sign of things to come.
Griffin works out his depression at Franklin Park Zoo, where he's a critter whisperer of sorts, sensing exactly what they need, especially a sulking silverback gorilla named Bernie (voiced by Nick Nolte). The animals like Griffin, eavesdropping on his troubles. They convene after closing time, with the cheeky monkey Donald (Adam Sandler) picking locks and turning on lights that nobody outside the gates ever notices.
As expected, animals understand human nature better than humans do in Zookeeper. Griffin follows their behavioral leads, after getting over the initial shock of hearing them speak. Most reactions consist of James doing what overweight people do in kiddie comedies: clumsily falling and picking themselves up. And what they do in rom-com fantasies: not realizing that the best mate (Rosario Dawson) is right under his nose.
Zookeeper earns most of its laughs with an impressive cast of celebrity voices: Nolte's raspy growl as Bernie, Sandler taunting other animals because Donald's the only one with opposable thumbs, Cher as a lioness taking a motherly shine to Griffin, and Sylvester Stallone sounding more intelligible than ever as her henpecked mate. Honestly, I didn't recognize many of them until the toe-tapping end credits, offering a delightful kicker.
Sure, it's silly without shame, and predictably sentimental. But Zookeeper is the most thoroughly enjoyable movie for the entire family in theaters right now. I can't believe I just typed that about a Kevin James flick with talking animals. We could blame air-conditioning, but there's more in play here. It isn't just the heat; it's the film's amiable stupidity.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365.