WE BOUGHT A ZOO
DIRECTED BY: Cameron Crowe
WRITTEN BY: Cameron Crowe, Aline Brosh McKenna
STARRING: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones
RUNNING TIME: 123 mins
DISTRIBUTED BY: 2oth Century Fox
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Recently widowed Benjamin Mee, still grieving his loss, leaves his job and, deciding he wants to move, looks for a country house to start afresh in. Finding a house he likes, he learns that it is part of a somewhat broken down and struggling zoo. Although reluctant to take on a zoo and all its animals, he decides to give it a try, delighting his 7-year-old daughter Rosie but causing his 14-year-old son Dylan to unhappily retreat into his artwork. The zoo staff, led by head keeper Kelly Foster, start to help Benjamin to start renovating the zoo but Ben soon runs into financial trouble and Walter Ferris, the zoo inspector, wants to close the zoo down…..
I don’t know what it is about the films of Cameron Crowe [Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous]. I find them perfectly pleasant experiences, and he certainly gets fine performances from his cast, but the movies kind of wash over me and I have almost forgotten them a few days later. This is, of course, with the exception of Vanilla Sky, his pointless, scene-by-scene remake [or rather ‘cover version’, as ex-rock journalist Crowe would probably say!] of Open Your Eyes! Something clicked for me though with We Bought A Zoo, which I found his most involving production yet, far more so, in fact, than his others. Now I must first of all emphasise that this is not the light, animal-centred comedy that the trailers and indeed the overall promotion of the movie may lead you to believe. The theatre I saw this in had quite a few young kids in it, and some seemed very bored. Not all of them though.
We Bought A Zoo, which is based on a true story [though altered quite a bit – for example in real life Benjamin’s wife died while he was renovating the zoo, not before] is first and foremost a story of overcoming grief. Benjamin McKee is a broken man, having trouble dealing with his wife’s recent death as well as dealing with the effect it has had on his two children. Some reviews has said that the film spends too much time dealing with this – there is certainly quite a bit of footage devoted to just Benjamin mourning, notably one very touching and rather beautiful bit where he looks at pictures of her and imagines he goes back in time and is having a picnic with her, a scene that I have no shame in saying brought me to tears! I disagree that the film has too much of this though. I think the movie deals with the subject with honesty – for a start there are no easy answers – and, though the marketing for We Bought A Zoo is misguided and many kids will not understand or be kept occupied by it, some will, as was proven by the showing I was at, and I certainly don’t think it is bad for them. It’s a million miles away from kids watching stuff like The Woman in Black or [horror of horrors] This Means War, which are patently unsuitable. I don’t there is anything wrong with introducing children to mature themes as long as they are handled responsibly, I mean Walt Disney didn’t kill off Bambi’s mother to be mean. He did it to tell kids that the world is mean and bad things certainly do happen!
We Bought A Zoo shows a man finding something to occupy himself and take his mind of the event that has ruined him, and that thing escalating into something that may very well be the thing that helps him move forward in life. There is a wonderful little scene quite early on where Benjamin stands in the doorway of his house and takes in his environment, the noises of the animals, the fresh air, etc. Here is somebody sensing some freedom, a fresh start. We Bought A Zoo certainly does not stint on showing it’s animals – its title is not a cheat -though they serve more symbolic purposes than anything else. One rather moving section has Benjamin form an attachment to a dying tiger and refuse to let it die, as if the tiger is an echo of his wife, though the script by Aline Brosh McKenna [responsible for The Devil Wears Prada, one of those films I thought I would detest and was proved wrong!] doesn’t spell it out for you – you just sense it.
Though the story becomes an effort to save a zoo, and adding rather too many Hollywood cliches along the way as well as one particularly convenient deus ex machina coming along to save the say, Crowe seems to have little interest in what would be the conventional approach. There is little suspense, little sense of a ticking clock before the nasty inspector does his inspection, little urgency. Crowe is more interested in the effect it has on his characters. The likable bunch off oddballs who maintain the zoo are not all characterised enough, but Rosie and Dylan are given as much emphasise as their father. Rosie is adorably cute [but rarely in a schmaltzy way] with her eternal optimism and provides a brilliant bit of understated sadness where she tells the estate agent her mum died and, when he replies he didn’t know her, answers “you should have”. Dylan, who seems to have been hit harder by the tragedy [or maybe he just finds it harder to deal with], causes the film’s most intense scene, a row where both father and son bare all, and, oddly, the film’s most romantic moment, the sweetest declaration of “I love you” I’ve seen in ages. I also liked the way our expectations of Benjamin having a romance with Kelly the zoo worker are constantly confounded, though one bit of awkward, out of place moment of dialogue shows Crowe still has trouble with convincing romantic scenes in his movies.
For the most part though, I thoroughly enjoyed We Bought A Zoo. Its odd mixture of realism and corny Hollywood fantasy shouldn’t work and have obviously jarred for some but I found it very pleasing. Remember that this was just the kind of thing Frank Capra used to do. Matt Damon, who at first seems to be chanelling his role in Hereafter, continues to impress with his acting, delivering all the emotional beats required but never over doing anything. The big surprise in the film for me was Scarlett Johansson. Never an actress I’ve ever thought much of, especially with the way she usually resorts to pouting, she is a revelation here; acting her socks off and not pouting once! One scene, where she witnesses an argument between father and son and you can see her trying to work out the reasons for the argument, is a mini master class in acting itself. Thomas Haden Church provides some laughs and in fact there are other laughs in this movie, just not too many of them. The many rock songs on the soundtrack are usually employed well and nicely contrast with Jon Thor Birgisson’s ambient-like score. It’s possible that, this being a Cameron Crowe film and all, this may end up like all the others for me in that I may forget much of I Bought A Zoo in a few days time, but I somehow doubt that, and anyway is it that big a deal if the film pleased me at the time?