Monday, December 19, 2011

Upcoming Release Review: We Bought A Zoo (Cameron Crowe, 2011)

We Bought A Zoo opens in Australian cinemas Boxing day, distributed through 20th Century Fox.

First of all I have to openly admit, We Bought a Zoo was a very pleasant surprise. With the holiday season fast approaching, and with multiplexes sure to be dominated by a pair of Spielberg films from Boxing Day, I fear that Cameron Crowe’s appealing new film will be forgotten about. While The Adventures of Tintin is well worth your time, this is a very acceptable family alternative – a sugarcoated feel-good film that uniquely handles familiar Spielberg themes (father/son estrangement and re-uniting families) but manages to out-Spielberg him, with Crowe ensuring the film is appealing to a wide audience, consistently amusing and genuinely moving and inspiring. To put it simply, everything that War Horse isn’t.

We Bought A Zoo, written by Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe, is actually loosely based on a true story – a memoir by British journalist, Benjamin Mee, who recounted how he and his family used their life savings to buy Dartmoor Zoological Park, a dilapidated zoo with a large number of exotic animals facing destruction. The film’s location has been shifted from Devonshire to Southern California, but the gist of the story remains the same I believe.

Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a father of two, trying to keep his family together following the recent loss of his wife. His 13-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford) is acting up at school. He is a talented artist but has taken to drawing disturbing images, and when he is caught stealing, he is expelled. Seven-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, excellent) is bright and cheerful, and surprisingly intuitive. Though she is scarred by the loss of her mother, she has accepted her reality with maturity beyond her years. Seeking a change (Benjamin is unable to enter the café where he and his wife first met) he decides to quit his job at a Los Angeles newspaper and use his inheritance to purchase a remote property containing a rundown zoo.

The motivation behind the purchase, in addition to Rosie’s immediate love for the peacocks, is fueled by Benjamin’s keenness for adventure and the lives of the animals that are at stake unless they have an owner to take care of them. In addition to the property, Benjamin also adopts a motley gang of unpaid employees, led by zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson). United by Benjamin’s motivation, and funded by his uncontained checkbook, the ragtag gang attempts to makeover the zoo, ensuring it passes an inspection from a tough-minded, oddball inspector played by John Michael Higgins.

Though Crowe sets out to meet the expectations of family-friendly holiday fare, We Bought A Zoo remains poignant, and has the potential to fill a viewer with joy. What I enjoyed about the film, in addition to the cast and the fantastic score from Icelandic Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi, was that it never forced me to feel as I did. I just ‘felt’. Even the music video-like montages worked. I laughed when I was amused, and I got a tingle when my heart was warmed. Not once did I feel like I was being influenced or manipulated. It was an honest story, with a lovely family dynamic at the core.

Some of the supporting characters, including Patrick Fugit’s zookeeper, feel a little shortchanged and the familiar themes mean that the film has to wade through a number of clichés, and several unavoidable conveniences, but I thought the way the unique premise, and the series of misadventures and dramatic obstacles (a depressed bear, an aging tiger and some loose tropical snakes), are confidently handled was quite commendable. We Bought A Zoo, above all, is about family unity. The eccentric, but likeable group of zookeepers and employees seem to have it – and as Benjamin takes on the daunting task of leading the transformation of the run-down zoo to an operational and passable establishment, he simultaneously learns about what is best for his family too.

There are some strong performances. Matt Damon, at his everyman best, is as likeable and relatable as ever, proving effective as a grieving widower, a frustrated father and a man with a craving for adventure, but also possessing this sympathetic naivety and cluelessness with how to rebuild his relationship with a son he is unable to communicate with. Scarlett Johansson has not been as impressive recently as her early roles in Ghost World and Lost in Translation would have suggested. Here, as appealing as ever, she is perfectly acceptable, and is not the traditional love interest, despite the trailer suggesting otherwise.

Colin Ford was solid as the brooding and reclusive teenager, while Maggie Elizabeth Jones was a scene-stealer. Dylan’s tentative friendship with Kelly’s niece, Lily (Elle Fanning, exceptional in her last two roles – Somewhere and Super 8 – and suitably awkward here), was a bit too cutesy to be believable, but their rain-soaked reconciliation is reminiscent of a classic John Cusack moment. Also, any film starring Thomas Haden Church (though he is playing almost the same role as he did in Sideways) and JB Smoove (the incomparable Leon Black in Curb Your Enthusiasm) is given some extra enthusiasm by their involvement. Haden Church appears as Benjamin’s brother Duncan and he effortlessly produces big laughs.

Audiences will likely leave the cinema with a giddy feeling of happiness, and a warm glow. While the tears didn’t quite break through, there was a threat – which was more than I was expecting. With Damon's sympathetic performance, an inspiring existential experiment and some unique and amusing relationships between the cast and the animals, this is a treat for all ages. Why not give We Bought A Zoo a go this holiday season?

My Rating: ★★★ 1/2 (B) 


  1. I'm afraid Cameron Crowe stopped interesting me long ago. I don't imagine I'll be seeing this one any time soon.

  2. The trailer for this film was quite misleading in terms of the romance. Like you say it wasn't so conventional, and I found it surprisingly touching. Overall a fine family movie.