We Bought A Zoo
In a year where every 9 out of 10 movies aimed at kids are CGI, 3-D, and packed to the brim with action set pieces; it’s incredibly hard to resist the homegrown charms of "We Bought a Zoo."
In spite of its many flaws, director Cameron Crowe ("Say Anything", "Jerry Maguire") has created a lightweight crowd-pleaser sure to play perfectly to young people tired of motion capture mania (as well as to parents tired of paying $15 a ticket for 3-D surcharges.) He may have also fashioned himself a new niche, with his trademark humanist eye and playful sense of comedy attuning perfectly with the family film genre.
Adapted from a true story, "Zoo" follows Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), an adventurous, overtly friendly single father trying to keep his family together after the tragic death of his wife (which is so similar to his character arc in "Contagion", released just three months ago, that I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it.) Finding pain in every corner of his home, Benjamin (constantly aided, for better or worse, by an accountant brother played by Thomas Haden Church) starts house hunting for a place to start anew.
Unfortunately, finding a place to call home worthy of the suburban standard, while also in close proximity to the city, is tough for Mee. Therefore, when he finds a place worth getting excited about, he buys it, even though it comes with a fully furnished, operational Zoo in the backyard.
How could such a twee, silly plot line work on an honest emotional level? It is quite simple, really: Matt Damon is a movie star. Sure, he’s also a great actor - a succession of scenes where he struggles with whether or not he can open old photos of his wife shows his character to be a repressed head case, a reality Damon has constantly peeking through Benjamin’s good-natured core. But he also carries this film on his back through pure charisma alone; he’s entrancing.
Whether it is chewing up every square inch of unoccupied scenery, getting into screaming matches with little children, or connecting better with animals than most actors can with other human beings; Damon never fails to bring a level of entertainment to the proceedings through his masterful performance tics.
That is the redeeming feature of the film, as the surrounding characters are nothing more than one-note jokes and cliché plot devices. Scarlett Johansson, most notably, pops up as Kelly Foster, the overseer of the backyard zoo. She has chemistry with Damon, but their dialogue leaves much to be desired (in one groan inducing moment, she blurts out her whole movie’s worth of back-story - lives with the parents, never goes out, misses her friends - in one unprompted outburst, as if it simply wasn’t worth writing into the story organically.) But her character is fully developed compared to some of the other cartoon characters populating this "Zoo", such as Walter Ferris as the unexplainably evil inspection agent or Elle Fanning as the zoo-schooled extrovert with a crush on Benjamin’s son.
Crowe’s direction, once reminiscent of Billy Wilder in its ability to mix melodrama with pathos, is undeniably a shell of its former self. But unlike the ham-fisted hammer-to-nail emotional style of his previous effort, "Elizabethtown," he steps aside in "Zoo" and lets his actors do the work without overwhelming them with montage sequences or overpowering soundtrack.
Plot holes may abound and characters may remain underdeveloped, but the heartfelt core of the film never wavers. And on that note, his choice to allow Jonsi to create the score (as opposed to his earlier works, which are almost entirely made up of preexisting tracks) paid off in dividends, with the unique sounds being one of the most lasting memories imparted by the film.
Instead of the achingly personal details that inform "Almost Famous," or the youthful exuberance exploding from every frame of "Say Anything," Crowe imbues "We Bought a Zoo" with a free-flowing pace (spread over 123 minutes, this film takes its time) that allows you to ’buddy up’ with the characters while he slowly builds to revealing their greatest strengths. It can be maudlin at times, but it’s an undeniable crowd-pleaser; sure to leave the more emotive viewers with a few cry-worthy moments.
It should go without saying that the film is a must-see for animal lovers of all sorts, with Crowe’s camera gliding lovingly over every inhabitant of the zoo, in awe of their grace. "We Bought a Zoo" (as Benjamin’s daughter constantly blurts out, willing the title itself into catchphrase-dom) may be fluffy, forgettable, and far too sanitary to breach any real emotional standards; but it’s also incredibly watchable and sure to be a top choice for families looking for some classically crafted fun in place of yet another computer-generated spectacle. It may not be a step forward for Mr. Crowe, but with Matt Damon on the screen and Jonsi in the speakers, it’s hard to resist a trip to this "Zoo" regardless.