Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Cameron Crowe
Stars: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Colin Ford, Thomas haden Church, Elle Fanning, Patrick Fugit, Angus Macfadyen, Elizabeth Jones, John Michael Higgins, Peter Riegert.
We Bought A Zoo is a wonderfully saccharine, sweet, cliched and family friendly drama from Cameron Crowe, the former Rolling Stone journalist turned filmmaker, who previously gave us Say Anything, Almost Famous and Jerry Maguire, etc. This is Crowe’s first film in six years, since the failure of Elizabethtown, and it lacks the edge and genuine emotional resonance of his best films. It’s based on a true story. But as with most of these films Crowe and screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna, who specialises in women’s pictures like 27 Dresses, etc, have obviously taken a few liberties for dramatic purposes.
The film centres around the Mee family, headed by Benjamin (Matt Damon), who is still grieving over the recent death of his wife. He is struggling to help his family cope, particularly his brooding 14-year old son Dylan (Colin Ford, from Supernatural, Family Guy, etc). Anxious to make a fresh start, Benjamin quits his job as a reporter and moves the family to a big house on a sprawling property on the outskirts of town. The catch is that the house comes with its own ramshackle private zoo, an adventure park that has been closed to the public for a couple of years.
However, Rosemoor is still home to several dozen endangered species, and Benjamin decides to reopen the zoo. In interacting with both the animals and the human staff – including Scarlett Johansson as workaholic zoo manager Kelly, Patrick Fugit, Angus Macfadyen’s angry drunk MacCready, and teenage intern Lily (Elle Fanning) – Benjamin’s family slowly begins to heal.
There is a subplot involving an ailing 17 year old tiger, and in watching its suffering and trying to keep it alive Benjamin is finally able to move on from his own grief. There is also some humour from John Michael Higgins’ officious inspector who has to sign off on the improvements before the zoo can reopen. There is some unnecessary padding here that stretches the film past the two-hour mark.
We Bought A Zoo deals with some strong and universal themes like grief, fatherhood, responsibility, angst, and family dynamics, and it contains some strong moral messages, but too often it seems a little glib and earnest. Unfortunately the various elements never cohere into a satisfactory whole, and there is not enough cute animal antics to placate younger audiences.
Damon’s performance is quite solid and grounds the film. He brings his usual decency to his role as the depressed and grieving father trying to move on. Damon and Ford have some emotional moments as the frustrated father trying to communicate to his angry and apathetic son. “Sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage,” he tells Dylan in a rare moment of intimacy, “and I promise you, something great will happen.” Newcomer Elizabeth Jones is precocious, adorable and cute as Benjamin’s seven-year-old daughter Rosie, who enthusiastically embraces her new life in the zoo.
Thomas Haden Church is solid as his no-nonsense brother Duncan, although he is given little of real note to do. Fugit, Crowe’s alter ego in Almost Famous, is also given little to do except wander around with a monkey on his shoulder and offer the occasional droll observation.
Technically, the film is proficient enough; Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography is good, especially with the outdoors stuff. As usual Crowe has peppered the soundtrack with lots of instantly familiar pop tunes from the likes of Neil Young, Tom Petty, Cat Stevens and Bob Dylan, to underscore the key emotional moments in rather obvious fashion. But the original score by Jónsi, from cult Icelandic band Sigur Rós, is rather uninspired. A bit like the movie itself really.