‘Zookeeper’ Kevin James (mostly) endorses ways of wildlife courtship
BY DENNIS KING
NEW YORK – Kevin James doesn’t buy W.C. Fields’ cynical old caution, “Never work with children or animals.”
In his new film, “Zookeeper,” the former star of TV’s long-running “The King of Queens” and regular-guy sidekick to bigger stars in movies such as “Hitch,” “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” and “The Dilemma” continues his transformation to top-line star status in a comedy that has him literally talking to the animals, “Doctor Dolittle”-style.
This movie follows James’ last headlining role in “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” casting him again as a chubby, likable schmoe who loves his work but can’t get any respect (except from the animals he cares for so diligently). He plays zookeeper Griffin Keyes, whose frivolous on-and-off girlfriend (Leslie Bibb) wants him to leave the zoo and find a more glamorous and lucrative career.
So, in an effort to retain their beloved keeper, the nervous zoo animals – led by a regal lion and a surly gorilla – elect to break their long-held code of silence, reveal to Griffin that they can talk and tutor him on earthy wildlife rules of courtship.
James, talking about the movie at a press conference hosted by Columbia Pictures in the sky-high Mandarin Oriental Hotel, within sight of the Central Park Zoo, allowed that animals can teach humans a thing or two about wooing the opposite sex.
“Animals act on complete instinct and in some ways it works and it’s a lot better,” he said “Maybe we need to go back to that and just act on our instincts. But some of those behaviors can go a little bit off – like marking your territory or throwing poop.
“But it was just a fun world to be in,” James continued. “Because animals don’t play games, they don’t pretend to be something they’re not. They just go out and do it and that’s it. They might get killed or eaten or whatever, but whatever happens just happens and it’s completely natural. And that’s the way I’m going to live from now on.”
The menagerie of animals starring opposite James – lions, bears, giraffes, elephants, wolves and a very mischievous Capuchin monkey – was comprised of real zoo animals, with the exception of a hulking, startlingly realistic animatronic gorilla named Bernie (voiced with sentimental gruffness by Nick Nolte).
James, who had a number of up-close buddy scenes with the gorilla, said he was astounded by how believable the giant mechanical animal was.
“We had two guys who wore the gorilla suit,” James said. “And they were great. Comedically, they were awesome to act with. The movements and the face of that gorilla, it’s so insane what they can do with it. Literally, I saw more real emotion from them than some human actors I’ve worked with.”
Director Frank Coraci said much of the creative technology that went into building Bernie was cutting edge.
“We just wanted to have a gorilla that looked real since all the other animals in the movie were real,” the director said. “And we brought in this company, ADI. We looked at all the gorillas that had been built for prior movies, and we wanted to have control of Bernie’s personality and how he looked and so we decided to create a new gorilla for our movie with the latest technology and servo-motors and stuff. But it was fun because we got to create a personality for Bernie from scratch.”
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