Monday, July 11, 2011

if i could talk to the animals

I probably first saw Kevin James in the Will Smith movie Hitch. It's a cute rom-com, and James was one of the brightest spots, as an awkward, but eager-to-love man who comes to "date doctor" Hitch (Smith) for help in winning the heart of the beautiful and famous Allegra (Amber Valletta).

I've since caught him in a variety of things — reruns of The King of Queens with the always-brilliant Jerry Stiller, and what has become one of my daughter's favorite movies, Paul Blart, Mall Cop. He is always appealing, even sometimes downright lovable, so I guess I have to count myself as a Kevin James fan.

Kate and Griffin trip the light fantastic
James is also a charter member of The Adam Sandler Movie Mafia, which includes friends and comedians Rob Schneider, Chris Rock and Steve Buscemi. In Grown Ups, it seemed like Sandler and James and Co. may have become a bit disillusioned with the making of movies and decided to just make a movie where a bunch of his friends go on vacation. As much as that's the shakiest of premises, it actually worked, because it was fun to go along for the ride with the guys and some equally funny gals, Maya Rudolph, Salma Hayek and Maria Bello. James brings that same "let's just have some fun" attitude to his movies. They know and we know that Sandler and James and Rock are multimillionaires, but somehow they are still able to connect with their audience and their regular-guy personas.

Zookeeper has been sold as a talking animals comedy for the kiddies, and it is — there is CGI and animatronics to make the zoo animals crack wise. But at its heart, Zookeeper is a rom-com. James has realized that romantic comedy is his niche and he's sticking to it. And he is usually a much more successful rom-com star than the more typical names that come up when thinking of the genre, like Jennifer Aniston and Anne Hathaway. Certainly his rom-coms have performed better at the box office. In the U.S. Hitch made over $177 million and Paul Blart made over $146 million. Aniston's Love Happens (22M+) and The Switch (27M+) and Hathaway's Love and Other Drugs (32M+) were lower performers. It's not a contest, and the ladies can sell tickets too, but James has proved that he brings strong rom-com box office.

In Zookeeper, James plays Griffin, the zookeeper at Boston's Franklin Park Zoo, who is beloved by everyone — his coworkers, his brother, and his charges, the animals at the zoo. Everyone loves him with one exception — Stephanie (Leslie Bibb), who he proposed to in an elaborate opening sequence complete with a sunset ride on a horse on the beach, where Griffin is emphatically and embarrassingly turned down. And then had to ride back across the beach, with fireworks blazing, a sobbing now ex-girlfriend, and a suddenly unnecessary serenading mariachi band.

Griffin has never gotten over Stephanie, and can't see his co-worker, the beautiful and intelligent Kate (Rosario Dawson), a vet and eagle expert, who is right under his nose. It's all standard rom-com stuff with a slight twist — the animals of the zoo have had enough of Griffin's schlumpy loser-in-love-and-life behavior and decide to coach him and help him win stephanie back. Of course that means that they also have to clue him in to the fact that they can talk.

Bernie and Griffin go out for a night on the town
The animals are voiced well, and the way they talk is technically well done, compared to earlier talking animal efforts like Look Who's Talking Now and Doctor Dolittle. Adam Sandler does a funny and almost completely unrecognizable voice as Donald the Capuchin Monkey. Other stand-outs include Sylvester Stallone and Cher as a lion couple and Jon Favreau and Faizon Love as two squabbling bears.

There are too many incidents of Griffin flying through the air to splat against something hard, but the kids in the audience all giggled, as did many of the adults. Watching Griffin and Kate try to make Stephanie jealous at his brother's wedding is one of the movie's high points, as they perform a spoofy Cirque du Soleil pas de deux. Also funny is Griffin's growing friendship with best bud Bernie (Nick Nolte), who happens to be a gorilla. Zookeeper is sweet and silly and fun. According to imdb, the next movie James has coming up is Here Comes the Boom. I bet there's some romance in it.
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