We Bought a Zoo – Review


Another brilliant family film in a year strong with family entertainment

Released a month a part this fall are two new films from celebrated writer-directors who haven’t made narrative films in more than five years. Alexander Payne’s The Descendants arrives seven years after his Oscar-winning Sideways and stars George Clooney. Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo arrives six years after the much-maligned Elizabethtown and stars Matt Damon. Other than the fact that both are headlined by Ocean’s Eleven co-stars, both films deal with losing matriarchs and the husbands who must come to terms while also trying to raise kids. Each handles the subject matter in distinct ways, but Crowe’s effort is likely to be more embraced this holiday season, as it is presented as a family film with a good message.

Good messages shouldn’t surprise those familiar with Crowe’s films. He knows the right heartstrings to pull and not be blatantly obvious about it. While he may have tipped his hand too far with Elizabethtown and the hard-churned emotional butter contained therein, when your resume includes Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous, you’re allowed some leeway.

What’s interesting about We Bought a Zoo is that Crowe’s participation came after the initial screenplay was written by Aline Brosh McKenna (of The Devil Wears Prada fame). With the exception of Vanilla Sky, Crowe’s films have been original works. Yet, the characterization of Matt Damon’s Benjamin Mee seems sewn by the same cloth that went into creating aspiring journalist William Miller in his semi-autobiographical Almost Famous.

Benjamin Mee is a seasoned journalist – some might call him an adventure seeker – traveling the world to cover intriguing stories (flying into a hurricane; interacting with killer bees) at a time when getting smudged fingerprints from reading the newspaper was still the norm. Mee loves telling stories, whether in print or verbally to his precocious little 7-year-old daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones warming every parent’s heart), but the recent passing of his wife leaves him to reassess his life and what’s best for the children. The other kid in the picture is 13-year-old Dylan (Colin Ford), an aspiring artist and wordsmith like his father, but someone who stares at others like he’s been playing “Mad World” on his iPod for hours on end.

Dylan’s recent expulsion from school gives father Ben the needed motivation to uproot the family out of Los Angeles to a new home. During a house-hunting expedition, Benjamin and Rosie drive past numerous two-storeys which are nice to look at but don’t give off a “homey aura.” And in perfect Hollywood fashion, the Goldilocks fit doesn’t occur until they view the last house: an 18-acre estate in the country that doubles as a zoo. Rosie is jumping-for-joy excited and Benjamin, though hesitant at first, gives in to the idea of owning a zoo and living a new kind of adventure.

Such a decision doesn’t sit well with Benjamin’s older brother, Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), who wanted Benjamin to get back to living, shaking it up even, but not as far as him blowing his share of their father’s inheritance in restoring a ramshackle zoo that houses 200 animals, including lions and tigers and a bear. Oh my.

The idea of a family coming to possess a zoo sounds purely fictitious, until you learn that the story is indeed true. There really is a Benjamin Mee and his family did purchase a zoo. Helping Benjamin get the zoo back into working order is a crew of eclectic employees, including a head zookeeper, Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson doing her best to appear homely), Mr. MacReady (Angus Macfayden), the big and burly designer of zoo enclosures, and Robin (Almost Famous‘ Patrick Fugit trading in a pad and pen for a capuchin monkey on his shoulder).

Almost from the start Benjamin is in over his head blowing through his inheritance. As responsibilities grow and he sinks further into debt, Benjamin comes to a crossroads in his life where he must either continue on with the future or allow himself to live in the past. Those familiar with Crowe’s earlier works know to expect at least one moment or scene that tips the balance allowing the protagonist reach his cathartic moment. For Say Anything you could point to John Cusack hoisting his boom box above his head with Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” blaring loudly. In Jerry Maguire, you have Tom Cruise exposing himself emotionally to Renee Zellweger in front of her and her girlfriends, when all it took was for him to say hello. In We Bought a Zoo the cathartic moment doesn’t come with a long speech or a dialogue-heavy exchange. It involves Matt Damon sitting alone on the kitchen floor, laptop resting on his lap. He’s trying to muster the strength needed to click through a collection of photos of his wife. The moment is teased scenes earlier but is not fulfilled until he sorts out the other big problem in his life, his relationship with son Dylan.

The narrative is not just about Benjamin’s emotional journey; there’s also a subplot about first love involving Lily (Elle Fanning), Kelly’s niece, who falls for Dylan, the mysterious boy from the big city. Their relationship is awkward, involving little verbal exchanges but not much interaction. It isn’t until Dylan has one of those “duh” moments where he decides to be brave and embrace the Green Acres relationship.

Cameron Crowe is at his best when telling stories that are emotional journeys for its characters. We Bought a Zoo is no different. Here Crowe is in vintage form. Having not read Mee’s memoir it’s difficult to gauge how faithful the screenplay is to the source material. The film depends less on its narrative structure and more on characters, specifically Matt Damon who is in just about every scene. Crowe does his best to keep the film from being maudlin or sitcomish (John Michael Higgins in a supporting role as an inspector doesn’t help matters), but is able to retain a charming quality throughout, even during its long second act.

We Bought a Zoo is another stellar family film in a year that’s had more than its fair share. Matt Damon excels in the role of a single dad dealing with loss and his co-stars are more than willing to take the journey with him. And you should to this holiday season.

We Bought a Zoo opens nationally on December 23rd.

Director: Cameron Crowe
Notable Cast: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Elle Fanning, Colin Ford, Angus Macfayden, Patrick Fugit, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Thomas Haden Church
Writer(s): Cameron Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna, based on Benjamin Mee’s memoir “We Bought a Zoo”

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