We Bought a Zoo (***½)


There’s always been a bit of Billy Wilder in Cameron Crowe’s films, but this year with ‘We Bought a Zoo’ marks the first time he’s gone in the direction of Frank Capra.  The result is a very effective, if lightweight film that works to make you laugh and make you cry.  This isn’t an “important” movie, but it’s an entertaining dramedy and has the right balance of elements to fulfill an audience member.  In terms of previous Crowe works, it has a bit of ‘Jerry Maguire’ to it, but perhaps more similarities to ‘Elizabethtown’ than many might prefer (not me though, I love that flick and consider it one of the more underrated films in some time).  This is Crowe making a family movie, and while he hasn’t lost any of his keen observation powers, he manages to make a film for a wide range of people.  Of course the soundtrack is excellent, but that’s no surprise.  What’s more noteworthy is the strong acting by the cast (including Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Elle Fanning, and Thomas Haden Church), all of whom do slightly different work than we’re used to seeing from them.  I suspect a number of people will find this movie, based on Benjamin Mee’s nonfiction book of his experiences, to be too cute for their liking, but for me it was a borderline delight.  I don’t know if the Oscars will have any use for it, but the Golden Globes have just the category for this…

Single dad Benjamin Mee (Damon) is having a rough time raising his kids ever since his wife passed away.  His older child Dylan (Colin Ford) has become dour and a bit of a troublemaker, having trouble coping without his mother.  Benjamin’s daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) is still cute as a button, but she’s begin to grow up a bit and start taking care of her dad as much as he’s taking care of her.  When Dylan gets expelled from school and things start getting to Benjamin too much, he decides they need a change.  They look for a new place, and find what seems to be the perfect country house.  There’s just one problem, as the real estate agent tells them…it’s a zoo.  Almost without thinking, and against the advice of his brother  Duncan (Church), Benjamin buys the place and sets out to try and re-open the zoo.  He’s helped out by the staff, including the head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Johansson), as well as zoo hands Robin Jones (Patrick Fugit) and Peter MacCready (Angus McFadyen).  Quickly they all become one extended family…not to mention the various animals at the zoo.  All is not sunshine and roses, however.  Benjamin is burning through money, one of the Tigers is dying, and Dylan is still as mopey as ever.  Luckily, another young zoo hand (Elle Fanning) catches his eye and young love might be in the air for Dylan, just as it could possibly be for Benjamin and Kelly.  As for the zoo itself, it all comes down to if they can get it up to snuff for the crabby inspector (John Michael Higgins) in time.  Along the way, there’s comedy, drama, and a lot of animals being cute.  It’s not complicated at all, but it does work very well.

No one in the cast is likely to get any attention from the Academy, but they all do work that’s as good as you’d expect, and maybe even a little bit better.  Matt Damon is trying his hand at being the sensitive single father who loses his way and has to earn his respect back.  He does it quite well, taking a role not too far from the one Tom Cruise essayed in ‘Jerry Maguire’ and making it his own.  To be fair, it’s not on that level, but Damon does a fine job.  Scarlett Johansson has a somewhat de-glammed role as the no-nonsense de-facto boss of the zoo, providing expertise and a potential love interest for Benjamin.  She does a very good job here, making the character more interesting than she is on the page.  The chemistry between her and Damon is subtle, but definitely there.  The kids are well cast, with Colin Ford a believable teen in trouble and Maggie Elizabeth Jones challenging Jonathan Lipnicki for the “most adorable child in a Cameron Crowe film” award.  As for the rest of the cast, Thomas Haden Church is mostly there for comic relief, Patrick Fugit and Elle Fanning are more or less wasted (though the latter has a few moments that shine, especially in relation to her crush on Dylan), and you barely notice most of the other actors.  The animals have more to do at times.  Not that it’s a big deal or anything, it just is what it is.  There’s a few main characters, a bunch of animals, and some other humans.

Cameron Crowe does a fine job directing here, making sure the over 2 hour film is well paced and never boring.  This is perhaps the prettiest film he’s ever made, and he shoots the animals in a way that accentuates their majesty.  They’re given enough time to actually be characters, but never in an overtly cartoony way.  If there’s a flaw to be found here, it’s in the script he took from Aline Brosh McKenna and re-wrote (based on the aforementioned memoir by Mee).  Too much of her style remains, and it clashes at points with Crowe’s superior screenwriting skills.  It’s a small complaint, but I feel like a purely Crowe script would have been an even better work than this.  The film does end on an absolutely perfect note though, so any issues one might have are taken care of with one fantastic scene.

‘We Bought a Zoo’ has charm to spare, and knows it.  This is an old fashioned up with people movie.  Capra would have been proud.  It’s the perfect choice for holiday season family viewing.  It may not be the Oscar hopeful I once envisioned and predicted, but it’s just as good a film in the end.  I highly recommend Cameron Crowe’s return to narrative cinema.  He’s been missed!

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