We Bought a Zoo (2011)
December 28, 2011
written by: Cameron Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna
produced by: Cameron Crowe, Marc Gordon & Julie Yorn
directed by: Cameron Crowe
rating: PG (for language and some thematic elements)
runtime: 123 min.
U.S. release date: December 25, 2011
Whether or not the latest film from director Cameron Crowe works for you depends on whether or not you get all choked up or find yourself basking in the glow of the manipulative warmth radiating from the screen. Cinematic manipulation isn’t a bad thing as long as you acknowledge and accept it, and aren’t insulted, bored, or upset by it. I get what Crowe is doing here and knew what he was aiming for going in. At no point did I feel hoodwinked or bamboozled by what the movie was trying to get me to feel. It was all pretty obvious. The story here has just the right ingredients to hit my sweet tooth: one cute little girl, sprinkled with an assortment of animals in need of care, and a dash of mourning widowed husband. Crowe may not have “had me at hello” with “We Bought a Zoo”, but I did find enough in this family-friendly feature to tug one or two of my heartstrings.
Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) used to be an adventure-seeking journalist, interviewing Middle East leaders about WMDs and visiting areas devastating by natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes. But after his wife (Stephanie Szostak) died, the dangerous assignments he had to face head-on were of a different kind of adventure, one that requires multi-tasking lunches, play dates, and juggling the school schedules of his children. These children of his, the too cute daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and her rebellious tween brother, Dylan (Colin Ford), are token staples for just about any movie family, especially a single parent family. the 4 year-old spouts irresistibly adorable lines, while the 14 year-old seemingly hates his father and spends his time drawing disturbing images in his sketchbook. Stereotypes through and through, but man did I ever go along with them.
It’s hard enough to deal with the loss of his wife and his kid’s mother, but he’s starting to realize that any chance of harmony in his fractured family is beginning to fade. Benjamin feels a change is needed, like maybe moving to a new place. His realtor (J.B. Smoove, for comedy relief) shows him a farmhouse, away from everything that reminds him of his wife, and on an impulse – he buys the place. The only catch? You guessed it. Actually, it’s a dilapidated animal reserve that still serves as a place of employment for a colorful motley zoo crew (consisting of Crowe’s “Almost Famous” alum Patrick Fugit, Dakota Fanning, and Angus MacFayden) led by zookeeper Kelly (Scarlet Johansson), who is understandably suspicious of her new employer’s potential, let alone his motives – but hey, he’s kinda cute, right?
Well, the thrill of the initial purchase (hearing lions roar from inside your home or visiting tigers on a short stroll is pretty cool) quickly fades as Benjamin pours all of his finances into restoring the zoo in order to turn into a place suitable for paying visitors. Not only does Benjamin have to earn the trust of his eclectically bohemian employees, but they all have to work together to meet the standards of an uptight government inspector (John Michael Higgins) in order to win his stamp of approval. With the help of his brother, Duncan (Thomas Hayden Church), and splattering of classic rock montages and warm-fuzzy heart-to-heart chats, everything just might come together. Like you thought they wouldn’t.
This is the kind of crowd-pleasing “based on a true story” that moviegoers eat up and it should do just fine with its release during the holiday season. Or will it? I don’t know. I’ve heard folks dismiss it based on the trailers alone, even making fun of Damon for taking the role. Whoa, wait a minute – isn’t there a place for crowd-pleasing sap that’s grounded with genuine emotions of loss and love with elements of redemption and reconciliation? Alright, I may be giving Crowe’s film more credit than it deserves, but it does work on those levels, albeit thinly – but it works nevertheless.
That is mostly due to the cast, specifically Damon who seems to ground every movie he’s in lately (he did it with “Contagion” too) with an authentic aura that is so easy to follow. I also really bought he and Church as brothers, it’s rare in movies that you see two actors who feel like they actually could be related, but that’s what you get here. I have to mention how refreshing it is to be reminded that Scarlet Johansson can act without accentuating her assets and I was so glad the screenplay downplayed any romance between Kelly and Benjamin, seeing as how getting over his wife is such a major thread throughout the film. As for the kids – well, they never really rise above the typical Crowelandian kids we see in his films, except for maybe Fanning, but there was something about her character that was slightly off.
In adapting Mee’s book, screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (“Morning Glory”), along with co-writer Crowe, broadly recreates the facts (Mee’s wife died after they bought the zoo) as well as relocating England’s Dartmoor Zoo that it’s based on to rural SoCal. One would think with all the recent headlines and the great recent documentary, “The Elephant in the Living Room”, that mid- Ohio would’ve been a good place to buy a zoo. While I was somewhat disappointed to see Crowe include so many clichés (like eventually the father and son must have it out) and familiar plot points (one reprehensible bit comes from a surprise amount of cash Benjamin stumbles upon), I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it.
Just like his previous work, music plays a big part in Crowe’s film. The former music journalist always has a hearty helping of his favorite rock/fol rock artists (Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Cat Stevens) to serve audiences. In fact, he spent the majority of the year promoting to music documentaries, “Pearl Jam Twenty”, chronicling the Seattle band and “The Union”, which focuses on the recent collaboration between Leon Russell and Elton John. But this time he does well to give the majority of the soundtrack responsibilities to Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi, who populated the movie with some of his well-known tunes as well as 11 new compositions. His ethereal and atmospheric sounds are rousing in places, but they actually save the film from becoming overly saccharine by giving it appropriate reflective moments where needed.
Being a fan of the majority of Crowe’s movies, I wanted “We Bought a Zoo” to work and I’m glad that it at least does just that, even though it doesn’t do anything more. It may not be the Capra or Wilder picture that Crowe seems to be striving for, but at least we get to see Damon and Johansson take a break from playing action heroes. Considering the similarities, this could be the feel-good mainstream version of “The Descendants”, Alexander Payne’s latest about a father with his hands full.