Dir. Cameron Crowe, 119mins, USA, 2011
Review by Matthew Rodgers
This is Cameron Crowe’s first feature since the critical and commercial failure of Elizabethtown in 2005 – the only time one of his scripts has featured such irredeemably unlikeable characters. We Bought a Zoo is an unabashedly old fashioned family flick that sets out to do little but slap a huge grin on the face of the audience.
This is the true story of Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a recently widowed father of two “Hollywood cute” kids; Dylan (Colin Ford), a teenage boy with whom he has a fractured relationship, and Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), an inquisitive little bundle of adorability with perceptive intuition beyond her years. Unable to escape the emotional imprint left by his wife, and against the advice of his older brother Duncan(Thomas Haden Church), Benjamin decides to up sticks and purchase a run down zoo, taking on the responsibilities that come with the ailing, neglected animals and the similarly ramshackle menagerie that is the staff.
Cameron Crowe has the unnerving ability to create narratives that exude humanity. He understands friendship and romance like few others, and although We Bought a Zoo is less subtle than Almost Famous, and is nowhere near as successfully melodramatic as Jerry Maguire, the theme of human connections is still prominent enough in the dialogue and performances for this to tick all of the right emotional boxes. Walking a very fine line between a U rated kids’ film that might alienate the more hard hearted, cynical adults, and the finest of the genre (Toy Story 3, Bridge to Terabithia), in that it commendably deals with some heavy adult themes, such as death, this film just about gets away with it.
The most disappointing aspect is that it only rarely sparks in the way that Crowe’s films so often do. His imprint is obvious during the early exchanges – “nobody is going to give an F to a kid whose mum died six months ago” – but once the story gets too caught up in lions, and tigers and bears he seems to have neither time nor inclination to bother with the smart dialogue.
Having said that, it’s a very hard film to dislike, and the same applies to the performances. Damon easily subverts his action man persona in order to appear vulnerable. His relationship with the young actors is the movie’s strength. A heart to heart with his son – “I’m your fan, man. Don’t you know that by now?”- and the tear threatening epilogue are both perfectly played examples of acceptable schmaltz.
Scarlett Johansson is the only other member of the ensemble afforded more screen time than the animals, and she is as wholesome and sweet as the script demands her to be. Haden Church pops up now and then to get the film’s best lines, and Elle Fanning backs up her Super 8 turn with a small but perfect bit-part.
Featuring an as expected soundtrack of eclectic brilliance – Tom Petty’s Don’t Come Around Here No More and Sigur Ros’ spiritually enlightening, Hoppipolla – both compliment the movie’s inoffensive intentions to make you feel good. By no means a classic, this will still put a smile on your face that would make a dolphin look miserable.