There’s no “The” in the title of the Kevin James comedy “Zookeeper,” and that lack of a definitive article pretty well encapsulates the generic fat man follies on display here.
Shifting James’ unhip-employee brand from the shopping center (“Paul Blart: Mall Cop”) to the zoo might seem like a change of scenery, but you’ve seen this kind of underdog vindication before. The filmmakers, in this case five writers (including James) and director Frank Coraci, merely added talking animals, in much the way “artificial flavoring” distinguishes junk foods of negligible culinary value.
James’ titular working man is Griffin Keyes, introduced to us by way of the central humiliation of his life: a failed proposal of marriage to stuck-up girlfriend Stephanie (Leslie Bibb). Her instant repulsion at the offer — the zookeeping thing was always a turnoff, it seems — might make for a cheap laugh, but it also signals the personality-blind ridiculousness driving the plot.
Five years later, Griffin is committed to winning back his heartless ex, when working alongside him in animal-loving harmony is Kate, a sweet, friendly eagle expert who looks like Rosario Dawson.
Buying Dawson as a romantic also-ran is about as believable as, well, the movie’s central gimmick, which is that the animals in Griffin’s care can talk, and decide to break their longstanding no-chitchatting-with-humans code in order to help their hapless master. That they’d rather give romance advice than plea to be freed is for another movie, granted.
So here, we get bears (voiced by Jon Favreau and Faizon Love) offering Griffin alpha-male posture advice, the lion (Sylvester Stallone) and lioness (Cher) bickering about courtship rituals in the herd, and the monkey (producer Adam Sandler echoing Gilbert Gottfried) saying, “Throw poop at her.”
Parents with grade-school boys in tow probably shouldn’t fear too much in the suggestive power of celebrity-voiced creatures, however. Though the wolf (Bas Rutten) insists Griffin trust in the pheromone-drawing power of a manly stream, it’s a safe bet that if young boys thought relieving themselves in a potted plant — as Griffin does at a wedding — would attract girls, that behavioral no-no would quickly be off the table.
“Zookeeper” has the territory-marking scent of a franchise product from the Sandler-produced stable: pratfalls, caricature and aggression, which the likeable-enough James isn’t as effective at getting laughs with as he is the more recessive, aw-shucks moments.
While Coraci directed the only remotely charming boy-meets-girl story in the Sandler canon (“The Wedding Singer”), there’s nothing sustainable about the love triangle here.
More curious is how ineffectual the gabbing menagerie shtick is, as if a group of majestic beasts — which includes a Maya Rudolph-voiced giraffe — are only interesting when hanging around tossing out one-liners. (A comment on captivity, perhaps?)
The only real spark from this “Night at the Museum"-style fantasy comes from the growing friendship between Griffin and Bernie, a dejected gorilla growled to life by Nick Nolte and who’s kept unfairly isolated due to perceived dangerousness.
In a strangely funny product-placement interlude, Griffin whisks Bernie away to a TGI Friday’s for a night of fried food, alcoholic revelry and flirting with the ladies, who are told Bernie’s a guy in a costume.
The absurdist glimmer here of man partying with talking animal is one that “Zookeeper” could have used more of, because the rest of the movie is more of a genre-fortified enclosure than a comic idea that gets to run wild.