Wow they really run that house like a zoo. Thank you, I know I’m funny.
‘We Bought A Zoo’ is based on the Benjamin Mee memoir of the same name and an actual true story. It tells the story of how Mee (Matt Damon) and his family used their life savings to buy a dilapidated zoo and restore it to its former glory.
What is with the films that are coming out that have to do with a father taking over his family as the wife dies (this, ‘The Descendants’) or ones that have to do with animals (this, ‘War Horse’)? Oh wait, it’s the holidays and everybody needs some good old cheer even though I’m not buying it.
Cameron Crowe returns to the big-screen after 6 years and being a fan of films such as ‘Jerry Maguire’, ‘Vanilla Sky’, and ‘Almost Famous’, I was excited to see him come back but he could have chosen something a lot better but thanks to him, it’s a lot better than I could have imagined. The film itself is co-written by Aline Brosh McKenna who has done fairly light-comedy flicks but you can almost tell where Crowe inserted his own writing and lines in. The main character is a writer (though he doesn’t do much of it), he’s going through a mid-life crisis of sorts and is dealing with the loss of his wife while raising an adorable child. Oh and let’s not forget that there are also the little speeches that characters give each other about life and just living it out to the fullest.
Although this all may sound cheesy and predictable (which in a way it is), Crowe somehow makes this film believable and entertaining to the point of where you do start to get involved with this story. The story is cliched beyond belief but there is just something about all of these characters that makes you smile and make you feel like you are apart of this zoo as much as anybody else on-screen. Crowe also out-lines the film with a lot of humor that is sometimes very witty, sometimes very obvious, and other times very dark (such as the Chilean miner reference which came out-of-nowhere). I think because of Crowe, this film isn’t as bad as it should be.
The problems that this film runs into is its dramatic moments where Crowe stumbles quite a bit. Since this is a family flick, Crowe feels the need to bring in these ultra-sappy and corny moments where a character is saying something sweet or giving another montage about their own feelings. It gets even worse when the score starts to blast on in every sequence something cute or bubbly happens. Maybe if they didn’t have the stupid score, I would have smiled at more scenes but it’s so cloying and distracting that I honestly just wish Crowe used the soundtrack for ‘Almost Famous’ instead. Could you imagine a zebra running around to the tune of Tiny Dancer?
Another problem I had with this film was that I think Crowe didn’t know how to trust his audience here so he just hits people over the head with everything he’s trying to show and do. When Benjamin does something dumb, there is automatically something there to hit his head or fall down from or when Benjamin starts to think about his deceased wife, she pops up right away. Crowe tries to spell everything out for us and instead of letting us think about it for ourselves, we have to get constant visuals of whatever is happening just so Crowe doesn’t lose us.
However, the power with this flick really lies in Matt Damon’s performance as Benjamin Mee, and it’s great to see him once again in top-form. Damon has the perfect balance of charm, humor, and normal look to him that makes him seem like a real dude with real emotions and even though his daughter sort of takes away any moment he has of being funny, Damon still seems like he knows what he’s doing. Scarlett Johansson is great to watch as Kelly, and the romance between her and Damon is really under-played which I liked because judging by the previews, I automatically knew I wouldn’t have been able to believe it and I still didn’t.
The rest of the cast is great with everybody getting a chance to strut their stuff. Thomas Haden Church is funny and brings a lot of wit to his character as Benjamin’s big-bro, Duncan; Patrick Fugit is back on the big-screen with a chimpanzee over his shoulder the whole time as Robin Jones; Angus Macfadyen is funny as the Scottish crazy-man, MacCready; and John Michale Higgins plays his arch-nemesis, Walter Ferris, who shows his perfect comedic timing with just about everything he says or does. The one disappointing performance and plot I was bothered by was the sub-plot between Elle Fanning and Colin Ford which seems very forced the whole time, even though the film constantly brings it up. Fanning has been really good in the past two films I’ve seen her in so for her to kind of just be a one-note character was a real disappointment, but hey, she’s got more films way ahead of her.
Consensus: We Bought a Zoo mainly benefits from Cameron Crowe’s writing and the fun performances from the cast, especially a very likable real Matt Damon, but is also way too sentimental and tries too hard to get us to feel something with constant speeches about life and spelling everything out for us.