We Bought a Zoo

28 Dec

Title: We Bought a Zoo
Year: 2011
Director: Cameron Crowe
Writers: Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe, based on the memoir by Benjamin Mee
Starring: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Elle Fanning, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Angus MacFadyen, Patrick Fugit, J.B. Smoove, Peter Riegert
MPAA Rating: PG, language and some thematic elements
Runtime: 124 min
IMDb Rating: 7.0
Rotten Tomatoes: 61%
Metacritic: 58


I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was thoroughly disappointed by We Bought a Zoo. Okay, maybe not thoroughly disappointed, but disappointed, certainly. Cameron Crowe is the guy that made Almost Famous, one of my ten or twenty favorite films of all-time, not to mention he’s also the guy that gave us Jerry Maguire and Say Anything. However, in 2005 he did Elizabethtown, a film most remember nowadays for being the one that made critic Nathan Rabin coin the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” to describe Kirsten Dunst’s character, which is just as well because the film was quite forgettable, a step down for such a great director. It seemed as though the critical and commercial failure of that film did a number on Cameron Crowe, taking a long six years off. He returned this year with Pearl Jam Twenty, a great documentary about a band he loves so much (I gave it an A-), but this was the one that mattered. And while it’s a very good film, it’s not great, and that to me, considering I waited six years for it, is a disappointment.

The thing that made this one a disappointment is that it was just overly-sentimental, and shamelessly so, not in a nuanced way that Cameron Crowe is so incredible at, but in a way that was just too schmaltzy, not hiding the fact that it wanted to tug your heartstrings that just didn’t do it for me. An even bigger pity considering that Matt Damon actually does a pretty wonderful job in the lead role, getting us to really sympathize with his story and really grounding the whole film with his presence alone. It’s because of him, such a fine actor, that this film works as well as it does, making the film truly funny and sweet no matter the incredulous amount of corniness surrounding it. Maybe I wanted a new Almost Famous, a perfect film, but what we got is a director bouncing back from a previous failure (though personally I thought Elizabethtown was okay), showing he still has impeccable taste and feeling, even if he goes a bit overboard with it in this one.

The film tells the truly extraordinary real-life story of Benjamin Mee, though with some creative alterations, a recenlty-widowed single father with two kids in tow who one day decides to move his family, to get a fresh start, and relocates them to a zoo they’ll now call home, and, alongside his family and a series of new friends, he starts the work of getting the zoo back to how it was in its glory days. Few directors are as unapologetically romantic as Mr. Crowe, whether it’s the boombox blasting ‘In Your Eyes’ or telling a girl she completes you, this guy is a genius at making romantic quotes because he never shies away from such an open sincerity, and We Bought a Zoo has that romantic vibe to it as well, it’s just that instead of it being between two people, it’s between a whole entire family, extended friends and recently-purchased animals included.

This may not be Almost Famous or Jerry Maguire, true enough, but just take a look at that cast, it’s incredibly likable and you can be damn sure they’ll make for good company for a couple of hours, not to mention that Mr. Crowe makes actors he directs be great (he’s the reason why the words “Academy Award winner” go before the name of Cuba Gooding Jr.). As the film opens we see Mr. Damon, who seems truly sincere every time he’s on screen, quitting his job at the L.A. Times with a confidence and easiness that just doesn’t ring true in this economic climate, but still, he just goes ahead and quits his job, not wondering for a second how he’s going to provide for his children or anything like that, just selling his house and buying a new house with a great view, and lions and tigers and a zookeeper that’s played by Scarlett Johansson, Kelly, who of course is single.

You can probably know how much of the film is going to turn out. The zoo starts getting repaired bit by bit, we get to see Patrick Fugit as an employee which will be a treat to Almost Famous fans, we get to see Thomas Haden Church who’s always delightful, and we get to see Elle Fanning, a young actress who’s on the road to greatness, play Lily, a cousin of Kelly’s who’ll of course be paired up with Dylan, the fourteen year-old sulking son of Benjamin. And he was my biggest problem with this film, the role of Dylan, because Mr. Crowe pays a lot of attention to the tension that starts building between him and his father, and instead of us finding the heart that’s in the rest of the movie there, it ends up feeling as though Dylan is just a typical moaning adolescent and not a kid grieving over the death of his mom.

As many clichés as We Bought a Zoo may have, of which there are some, this is still a winning film. Everything is just beautifully shot by Rodrigo Prieto (the cinematographer of choice of Alejandro González Iñárritu and an Oscar nominee for Brokeback Mountain) and the performances by absolutely everyone are really great here. Especially that of Mr. Damon, a man who brings this kind of sweet touch to the role, never once over-selling a single scene with a co-star, acting on pure honest instinct that’s just great to see. I thought We Bought a Zoo was a disappointment, that’s true, but that’s because I was expecting a pretty much perfect film. It may have been off-base to expect so much after a six year absence, and at the very least We Bought a Zoo is a film that approaches that greatness, comes close to it, doesn’t achieve it because it’s just too much of a saccharine ride, but it still has a handful of excellent performances that show us why Mr. Crowe is a director unlike any other, unafraid to go to that place of raw sentimentality. Here’s for not having to wait an extra six years.

Grade: B+


One Response to “We Bought a Zoo”

  1. CMrok93 December 29, 2011 at 6:20 am #

    Nice review. Without Cameron Crowe on the director’s chair, or the whole cast that this flick assembled, I honestly think this would have been just another cheesy, schmatzly, and way too sentimental pic. However, it’s heart is in the right place and I found myself fairly pleased leaving the theater. Check out my review when you can.

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