By: BabyRuth (Three Beers) –
Cameron Crowe’s first non-documentary feature film in six years, We Bought A Zoo, opened in an early preview back on Thanksgiving to generate buzz for its Christmas weekend wide release. Not much came out of the sneak peek (aside from a hilarious but really dark parody Twitter account: @WEBOUGHTAZ00 ) and the film opened pretty quietly this past weekend in sixth place. It could be the instant punchline title to blame. Or it could be that theaters were saturated with other holiday family fare with The Adventures of Tintin, Warhorse, the already released Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, and The Muppets. Maybe it’s that audiences were wary since Crowe’s last effort, 2005’s uneven Elizabethtown, was a critical and commercial flop. Or maybe it’s that people still had a bad taste in their mouths from this:
Yup, when in doubt, blame Kevin James. Try it in everyday life, it works!
The story goes like this. Haunted by constant reminders of his recently deceased wife Katherine and dealing with his troubled 14 year old son Dylan (Colin Ford) who was recently expelled from school, grieving widower Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) makes a decision to uproot his family and move to a new town. He finds the perfect house, but there is one major stipulation. Have you been paying attention? It comes along with a ZOO!, which the new owner must take on. The grounds, the animals, the staff, all of it. The ZOO! is extremely run down and needs major renovations in order to pass inspection and reopen in mere months. After approximately five minutes of deliberation, Benjamin decides to go for it. How hard could it really be?
You’re probably thinking, “Oh come on, this stuff doesn’t really happen.” But it does and did. This is a true story. People buy zoos all the time! The film adaptation of the real Benjamin Mee’s novel does take a few artistic liberties, most notably moving the story from England to California and setting the action six months after the passing of Katherine (in actuality, the family purchased the zoo while she was still alive rather than Benjamin’s impulse buy to start fresh after her death as is depicted in the film). Pretty major changes, but they allow Crowe to use the zoo to serve as a means for Benjamin and his family’s catharsis.
First off, Kevin James is nowhere to be found! Salut!
Secondly, it’s Cameron Crowe. There is no doubt that We Bought a Zoo is a Cameron Crowe film. If you are a fan (as I am), this is reason enough to check it out. All his trademarks are there. The careful selection of music to set a mood, quirky characters (including Almost Famous’ Patrick Fugit), and that certain brand of sweetness that comes from a Cameron Crowe movie.
There are few surprises and the story is pretty predictable, but it’s engaging because of Crowe’s unique way of moving it along. In the hands of another director, it could have been a sappy mess.
The strong cast deserves a toast as well. At the center is Matt Damon, a perfect choice for Benjamin. The character is a tricky one. Of course it’s easy to be sympathetic to a handsome, caring father who recently lost the love of his life, but Benjamin often uses some very poor judgment (we’ll get to that in a bit) and it can be frustrating to watch without wanting to yell at him. A less likable actor wouldn’t be able to pull off this mix.
A de-glamorized Scarlett Johansson shows her versatility as Kelly, the almost saintly head zookeeper and has an easy, unforced chemistry with Damon. Colin Ford recalls a young Edward Furlong (back when he was a promising young actor rather than a former child star) and handles the majority of the film’s dramatic conflict with the maturity and ability of a veteran actor beyond his years.
The always fun Thomas Haden Church is well cast as Benjamin’s older brother Duncan and gets most of the best laughs with his monotone zingers. Elle Fanning plays the sunny Lily and while I wondered just how much exotic animal dung fumes Lily inhales on a regular basis, she’s sweet and harmless which makes for a nice contrast to gloomy Dylan. And just as in Jerry Maguire, Crowe once again hits adorable child gold with Maggie Elizabeth Jones as little Rosie.
Even for someone with a malfunctioning biological clock, it’s impossible not to smile whenever she is on screen.
It’s difficult to not feel some sense of manipulation while viewing a movie that addresses death. Throw in cute animals and children and one can nearly feel their heart strings being played like a guitar. A sad, introspective, acoustic guitar. Crowe usually has a knack for subtlety in this regard (“What kind of beer?”-Almost Famous), but there are moments where it’s pretty exposed. I fault co-screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna more for this, though, based on track record (27 Dresses and the wretched I Don’t Know How She Does It).
Remember when I mentioned sometimes Benjamin does some really stupid things that make it difficult to root for him? He does a lot of them. Even before he buys a ZOO!, he quits his writing job in full on Maguire-mode because his boss didn’t like his idea or something. His boss begs him to reconsider. He refuses. Then his boss asks him to at least allow him to lay him off so Benjamin can receive severance and benefits for his children. NOPE!
Once at the zoo, there is a very sick tiger. All attempts and medication to help it have failed and the increasingly ailing animal suffers in pain while Benjamin refuses to do the humane thing, angering Kelly, who knows from, you know, years of experience with animals, that this is not fair to the tiger. But Benjamin lost his wife, he’s not going to lose the tiger too! Because this is all about HIM! (Kind of funny his last name is MEE).
“‘I’ll save you, by my sheer (good) will (hunting)!”
These are only two of the many irresponsible and selfish things Benjamin (at least the fictional adaptation of him, not sure how many the real-life Mee is guilty of) does in addition to sinking every penny he has (and receives) into a dilapidated zoo rather than saving for his and his children’s futures. When animals began escaping I actually wondered if Mee was the same guy behind that recent story about that zoo in Ohio. (He’s not. Totally different irresponsible zoo owner.) Like I said, pretty much anyone except Matt Damon (well, and Tom Hanks) would make the viewer scream and turn on the character, but somehow we’re still on board rooting for this guy to succeed.
While it’s nowhere near a perfect film, We Bought a Zoo’s heart is in the right place, and there is a lot of heart to go around. At times it can come off as corny, contrived, and unbelievable, but hang in there and the charm of Crowe’s storytelling and the cast’s sincere performances will win you over no matter how much you try to resist. Worth a look.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever anyone mentions Target.
Take a Drink: whenever Kelly corrects “Ben” to “Ben-jamin.”
Take a Drink: whenever an animal responds with a human-like reaction to something someone says or does (usually something stupid).
Take a Drink: whenever someone (usually Benjamin) does something incredibly stupid and/or selfish.
Take a Drink: whenever Kelly has to save the day.
Take a Shot: whenever Rosie squeals “WE BOUGHT A ZOO!”
Last call: Not so much a genuine last call, as the scene takes place before the credits roll, but I included it because it feels a bit tacked-on as the film already reached a satisfying ending before it. Still, it’s handled with just enough restraint to be heartwarming and provides a nice callback to something a character said earlier in the film. While not entirely necessary, it provides nice closure, both to the characters involved, and to the film.