Director Cameron Crowe has delivered some of the most iconic imagery in contemporary film: John Cusack holding the boombox over his head in Say Anything…, the definitive Tom Cruise role in Jerry Maguire, the Rolling Stone nostalgia of Almost Famous.
But studio interference on Almost Famous (Dreamworks cut 40 minutes from the theatrical release) might have affected Crowe as a filmmaker, and his next two films, Vanilla Sky and Elizabethtown, were largely disappointments.
We Bought a Zoo – Crowe’s first film since 2005’s Elizabethtown – is good-natured, agreeable, and even heartwarming. But it also lacks that special spark, something that made Crowe’s earlier films so memorable. Few will leave this movie disappointed, and many will be moved to tears, but it just doesn’t have that staying power.
At the outset, Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is still mourning the death of his wife six months prior and attempting to raise their two kids to the best of his abilities. His troubles are put to the test when 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford) is expelled from school. So he decides to quit his job, pack it all up, and move the family on to new surroundings.
Those new surroundings turn out to be, yep, a zoo. Benjamin doesn’t know anything about animals, but the house is perfect, young daughter Rosie loves the place, and after crunching the numbers, he figures he can make it work. So against the advice of brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), he buys the zoo (that awkward moment in movies when a character speaks the title of the film is really tested here, after 5+ repetitions).
It helps that the current zookeeper is the lovely Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), and she even has a young cousin (Elle Fanning, so exceptional in Somewhere and Super 8, but miscast here as the gawky, fawning lovebird) to keep Dylan occupied.
And the other workers, including characters played by Patrick Fugit and Angus Macfadyen, seem like a friendly bunch. Together, somehow, they’ll make it work.
The titular zoo is really just a plot device: there’s little discussion about the ethical and moral responsibilities of running a zoo (besides some of the realities of animal welfare), but the film tries not to concern itself with controversy. Replace the titular zoo with a retirement home or minor league baseball team, and you’ll have the same movie, with fewer animals.
I didn’t like the fact that they made a villain out of zoo inspector Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins), the one character who should be looking out for the animals. Or that Dylan abuses some of the animals (he tosses a snake in the air and kicks it) with little consequence.
But the zoo isn’t important: We Bought a Zoo is really about a family struggling to come together, and finding its footing after the death of the mother. The film ultimately scores (after a protracted Field of Dreams-esque “if you build it…” climax) with an especially tender, touching sequence set in the coffee shop where Benjamin first met his wife.
If any element of the film (based on the memoir by the real Benjamin Mee, who bought his zoo in England) didn’t ring true, the whole thing would come crashing down. Luckily, despite a heavy dose of sentimentality, it doesn’t; Damon is one of the most likable actors of his generation, and every ounce of his charisma is put to use here. I only wish the story was told with the same kind of conviction that director Crowe used to display.