The posters for this movie drastically overemphasized the presence of zebras. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. If you’re a devout zebra enthusiast, look elsewhere for your thrills. Otherwise… Yeah, this is pretty good for what it is.
Director Cameron Crowe has finally returned to filmmaking after a six-year absence, and like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, he’s made one for his kids. Or possibly one for his alimony payments, I can’t be sure. We Bought A Zoo is a “heartwarming tale” of “overcoming all odds” and so forth, and is so overtly sentimental that you’ll be forgiven for making reflexive gagging gestures in protest. But if you like this sort of thing, this is one of the better examples of how to do it right. Splendid performances, a touching storyline and occasional bursts of genuine cinematic intelligence (if you catch the La jetée reference, you deserve a cookie) make Crowe’s sometimes insufferable mannerisms, like “adorably” precocious youngsters and distractingly on-the-nose pop music… Well, they make all that sufferable. Sometimes even fun.
Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee, an adventurous reporter struggling to raise his kids alone after the death of his wife. After his son Dylan (Supernatural’s Colin Ford) is expelled from high school in a fit of moody “Why Me?” troublemaking, Benjamin uses it as an excuse to move away from the pervasive reminders of his late spouse. They soon find the perfect home, but the realtor keeps saying ominous things about how “complicated” it is. You half expect the place to be haunted, but no… It’s a zoo. Lions, tigers, bears, oh my is this a tired reference, but it’s got the lot of them, and Benjamin is just enough of a thrill-seeker – and his daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) is so adorably captivated by the idea (sigh) – that he leaps at the chance. And so begins a long string of characters saying, “We bought a zoo,” which would probably make for a nice drinking game if anyone in the target demographic was actually allowed to drink.
Oh, but I am cynical. We Bought A Zoo is actually very sweet. In addition to buying the aforementioned zoo, Benjamin also acquires a gaggle of employees including a Scottish drunkard played by Angus Macfadyen and a lovable manager played by Scarlett Johansson. Damon is his usual, wonderfully talented self but more than anything, We Bought A Zoo presents the most likable performance of Johansson’s career. She’s finally allowed to play a human being and not some sort of elusive ideal, and she nails it. Even Dylan’s love interest, played by Super 8’s Elle Fanning, is alarmingly approachable. The characters of We Bought A Zoo are, to a one, lovable folks. Even the movie’s de facto villain – a zoo inspector played by Arrested Development’s John Michael Higgins – is too mannered to be a genuine threat. And apropos of nothing, I’m giving the film an extra “.5” out of 10 just for going two full hours without fart or poopy joke.
Crowe sells the family drama of losing a loved one with tenderness and class, and the difficulties inherent to running a zoo (which they bought) with an appropriate level of frustration, nicely balancing the otherwise saccharine golly gee whiz lovability of the furry critters running all over the place. We never fully understand what’s so innovative about the zoo’s management – it’s supposed to be revolutionary, we’re told – but we understand the love that the keepers have for their jobs and their animals. Of course, there are some who believe that the very existence of zoos is borderline-barbaric, but there’s none of that sentiment in We Bought A Zoo, for better or worse. There’s only hope and friendship and family and…
And alright, stop gagging. I hope you choke on your own heartlessness. We Bought A Zoo might be a stereotypical “family movie,” but it’s still a good one.