Zookeeper


Zookeeper

Kevin James talks to his target demographic.

(2011) Family (Columbia) Kevin James, Rosario Dawson, Leslie Bibb, Joe Rogan, Ken Jeong, Cher (voice), Nick Nolte (voice), Adam Sandler (voice), Sylvester Stallone (voice), Judd Apatow (voice), Jon Favreau (voice), Maya Rudolph (voice), Faizon Love (voice), Don Rickles (voice). Directed by Frank Coraci

 

There’s a Hollywood platitude that a smart actor never works with kids or animals. Of course if a career is going to have any longevity, it is inevitable that one will someday have to work with either or both. If you’re going to do a movie set in a zoo…well, be prepared to be upstaged.

Griffin Keyes (James) is a zookeeper who really loves his job. He enjoys interacting with the animals in his charge and cares very much about them. He is a kindly, genial sort who is also quite shy and a bit clumsy. He is trying to get over the rejection given him by Stephanie (Bibb), his ex who turned down his elaborate marriage proposal five years earlier. It devastated his self-confidence and led him to an existence with virtually no social life.

He has earned the respect of the zoo’s veterinary zoologist Kate (Dawson) who sympathizes with his plight. Stephanie had dumped him because he was a zookeeper, someone with a limited income and limited possibilities. Of course Stephanie is a shallow materialistic individual that has no business with guy like Griffin anyway but Griffin doesn’t see that.

He has a chance to win her back, even though she’s seeing an ex-boyfriend named Gale (Rogan) who is as mean and as shallow as she is. The animals, thinking that Griffin will leave them unless he finds a girl in town who will keep him there, decide to give Griffin dating advice so that he can win the girl.

Of course, this unnerves Griffin more than a little bit. It turns out however that animals can in fact talk and just choose not to because it freaks out the humans when they do. Griffin particularly bonds with Bernie the Gorilla (Nolte) who is depressed. Griffin cheers him up (by taking him to a TGI Fridays of all places) and the two become best friends. No comment on being the best friend of a primate, please.

Of course Griffin must eventually make  a choice between Stephanie and a life as a successful car salesman and Kate and a life as a humble zookeeper. I’m sure you’ll be able to guess which way the wind blows on this one.

The movie got critically panned during its release last year and it made a few “Worst film of the year” lists which I think is a bit harsh. Certainly there are some misfires here.

Casting James isn’t one of them. He is one of the most likable actors working in Hollywood and it’s hard not to root for him, even if his romantic leads of Bibb and Dawson don’t seem to be the types who would fall for pudgy older men. Of course, as a pudgy older man I have some experience in this.

The problem here is mostly with the zoo animals. They were matched with celebrity stunt voice casting which might have pulled a few bodies into the theater at the time but the CG was a little bit rough and the voices don’t always go with the animals really well.

Worse still, I get the sense that this was a movie that wanted to pull in an adult audience but the studio was aiming for a family audience and we got jokes that fell somewhere in-between. Some of the jokes were probably a bit much for kids, and others a bit dumbed down for their parents. Try to please everybody and you wind up pleasing nobody, and that statement is never truer than it is here.

There is some heart and charm and it shows through at unexpected times. Dawson does a great job as being the girlfriend everyone wants to have – just like in Clerks 2. She reminds me a little bit of Meg Ryan in that regard; she has a big future in romantic comedies in my opinion. Kevin James is also pleasant to watch.

And that really sums up the movie in a nutshell. It’s pleasant but not particularly memorable. You won’t hate it while you’re watching it but you won’t love it either. It’s just kinda…there. Your kids might get a kick out of the talking animals but something tells me that it won’t be enough for them to put it on their regular viewing list.

WHY RENT THIS: James is plenty likable and Dawson is the girlfriend every guy wants.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The animals don’t quite work out so well and the humor is mostly either too over the heads of kids or too dumbed down for adults.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some rude humor, a little bit of innuendo and some mildly bad words. Still acceptable for nearly all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James Hong, who voiced noodle shop owner Mr. Ping, is the son of an actual noodle shop owner.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and an in-depth look at the creation of Bernie the Gorilla in physical effects. The Blu-Ray also contains a playable demo for a Sony Playstation 3 Game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $169.9M on an $80M production budget; the movie basically made back its production budget during its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: House on Haunted Hill (1999)

Snowmen


Snowmen

Can you guess which kid farted?

(2010) Family Drama (MPower) Bobby Coleman, Josh Flitter, Ray Liotta, Christopher Lloyd, Bobb’e J. Thompson, Christian Martyn, Doug E. Doug, Demi Petersen, Beverley Mitchell, Jennifer Klekas, Carolina Andrus. Directed by Robert Kirbyson

There are those who believe that the greatest tragedy in life is a life unrealized. We all yearn to make a mark, to accomplish something that will live on long after we’re gone. However, it is admittedly rare for a ten-year-old to think about such things.

Then again, there aren’t many ten-year-olds like Billy Kirkfield (Coleman). Billy loves the snow; loves to build snow forts, snow men and throw snowballs at his friends, and in Silver Lake, Colorado, there is plenty of snow to go around. Unfortunately, Billy doesn’t have a lot of friends. Many of them distanced themselves from him when Billy got cancer. His hair still hasn’t grown back from the chemotherapy, so he wears a wool cap wherever he goes.

When Howard Garvey (Thompson) moves in next door from Jamaica, it turns out to be quite a culture shock for the both of them but they instantly bond over – what else – snowballs. Howard becomes the third member of the outsiders at school, the severely put-upon and timid Lucas (Martyn) being the third. In fact, it’s somewhat fitting that Lucas’ last name is Lamb. The three bond when they discover the body of an 87 year old man in the snowdrift they’re building their snow fort in.

But this is no Stand By Me. The appearance of the dead guy forces Billy to confront his own pending mortality. It appears the cancer has reappeared – nobody is telling him straight out, but his parents have been more affectionate than usual and the hospital is calling every day. Billy knows he doesn’t have long, and he wants to leave a lasting mark before he goes. After some thought and a few less-than-successful attempts at doing something cool, Billy hits upon the idea of setting a world record for most snowmen built in 24 hours.

There are plenty of issues standing in his way, including a vicious bully (Flitter), a less than enthusiastic principal (Mitchell) and his somewhat distant Dad (Liotta), who is trying to pay off the medical bills, run his used car dealership and find some time for his son. Billy is playing his “dying kid” card like a shopaholic with a no-limit credit card, but he doesn’t know how long he has – and the odds are steep against him.

This could easily have been one of those made for Nickelodeon movies in which the kids are smarter than the adults and are plucky and resourceful without breaking a sweat. These kids are far from perfect; their greatest asset is their willingness to take their dream as far as it can take them.

Coleman reminded me a little bit of Sean Astin in The Goonies – not so much facially, but in his enthusiasm and leadership. Not that the two movies are similar – only that the two leads have a lot of similar characteristics, especially in terms of their heart and drive. Coleman also does a good job conveying the anguish he feels when his hat is torn off of him by Jason, exposing his bald head for all to see.

Liotta plays a bit of a cartoon used car salesman with outrageous commercials and a penchant for endless self-promotion, but at the end of the day he’s a good dad, wracked with guilt over what his son is forced to go through. It’s a marvelously affecting performance and reminds us that Liotta can be as good an actor as anyone in the business.

Also of note is a cameo by Christopher Lloyd as the caretaker of the cemetery where the old man whose body the boys found is buried. While the part essentially exists to get the filmmaker’s life lesson across, Lloyd handles it with dignity and surprising restraint. While we all know him for the Reverend Jim on TV and Doc Brown in the movies, he doesn’t necessarily have to overplay to be memorable.

I liked that the movie wasn’t so much a formula family movie, although there were some moments that left me groaning inside (how did Howard, who could barely stand on his skates and on the way across the pond “only” fell tweve times, suddenly turn into a speed skater near the end of the movie for example). However, it’s kind of rare for a family film these days to be thoughtful and unafraid to tackle difficult issues. Too many films in this genre dumb themselves down and go for really lowbrow laughs and to my mind, refuse to respect the intelligence of their audience. Kids may be inexperienced and lack sophistication but that doesn’t make them morons and it’s nice to see a film that doesn’t treat them that way. Here is a family movie worth seeing that wasn’t made by Pixar – now there’s a mark worth leaving behind.

REASONS TO GO: Heart-warming without being sickly sweet, with some fine performances from the young actors.

REASONS TO STAY: There are a couple of moments that nearly jump the shark.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter may be a bit much for smaller children and there is a scene near the end that might be too intense for younger kids but perfectly fine for kids ten and up – and a good jumping-off point for a dialogue about death for kids who may have experienced the loss of a loved one or a friend.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film, which was runner-up for the Audience Award at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, was based on Kirbyson’s experiences growing up in Winnipeg.

HOME OR THEATER: If you can see it in a theater, by all means do – however, chances are you’ll have to wait for a home video release.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Kinyarwanda