Cert: PG Runtime: 124 mins Director: Cameron Crowe Starring: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones and Elle Fanning
You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it
We Bought a Zoo is a simple tale, Matt Damon buys a zoo.The film is based on the true story of Benjamin Mee (played here by Matt Damon), a single father who is coping with the recent passing of his wife, and having to raise his two children on his own. He has a teenage son, Dylan (Colin Ford) younger daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones).Benjamin decides the time has come for a change when Dylan is expelled from school, and he himself becomes fed up with his newspaper job, and walks off.He finds the perfect home somewhere in the Southern California countryside. Naturally, it’s the one that the realtor seems the most nervous about, due to the fact that the house comes with its own struggling private zoo. In what has to be one of the biggest impulse buys in the history of cinema, Benjamin decides to buy the house when he sees how happy his little daughter is around the animals. The family moves in, and they take charge of the zoo, which comes with its own staff of colorful stock characters. There’s Kelly the zookeeper (Scarlett Johansson), who serves as somewhat of a love interest for Benjamin. The zoo’s staff even has a teenage zookeeper (Elle Fanning) to act as a love interest for Dylan. With Benjamin determined to re-open the Zoo with very little funds, they attempt to bring the magic back in the zoo.
I’m a fan of writer/director Cameron Crowe and I readily look forward to anything and everything that he does. This outing certainly won’t change that feeling but it isn’t one of his better works. Simply put, We Bought a Zoo wants desperately to be both family-friendly and cinematically relevant and that mix just doesn’t blend seamlessly. Crowe’s usual brand of fresh, casual, and well-versed dialogue is muddled with predictable clichés. It often borders on becoming cheesy and it is almost always cloying, working extra-hard to force a connection that isn’t always there. There are a number of scenes which are just fine in terms of post-Christmas feelgoodery but fall flat in terms of really mattering. This uneven mix seems to negatively affect some characters and actors more than others. Ford and John Michael Higgins (as a zoo inspector) both jump back and forth between good and bad scenes and Elle Fanning, who was so good in this summer’s Super 8, doesn’t have any feel for her character whatsoever. I think she’s supposed to be the teenage version of the manic pixie dream girl but instead she just comes off as an idiot. Add in a will-they-won’t-they romantic relationship between Benjamin and his head zookeeper, Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), that would have been better off left on the cutting room floor and you get a cliché-riddled narrative that doesn’t do much to inspire.
When We Bought a Zoo excels is when it gets real. Damon gives a subtle, craftsman-like performance and does an outstanding job of conveying an awful lot about his character in unspoken ways. You genuinely feel for Benjamin and it is the genuine sympathy that Damon elicits that serves as an example of what could have been had the film gone in a different direction. Interactions between Benjamin and Dylan and Benjamin and Kelly in the second act are powerful, filled with emotion that is wholly appropriate for the situation. There’s a story arc involving Benjamin’s relationship with an aging tiger that hits home on a number of levels. The flip side of this is that these moments are much more tense and dramatic than the family-fun exhibited throughout the rest of the film and if Crowe had continued to expound upon these plot points, there’s no way We Bought a Zoo would succeed with the kiddos.It should be noted that none of this film’s issues are deal breakers. It is funny, entertaining, and totally acceptable family film that never allows its flaws to become cringe-worthy or painful. In essence, it is Dolphin Tale and there’s nothing wrong with Dolphin Tale. But with Crowe, Damon, and a potentially impactful subject matter involved, it could have been better than it is.