Pitched somewhere between an earnest and romantically idealistic chronicle of loss and hope and a poignant examination of grief and bitter pains of family, Cameron Crowe's "We Bought A Zoo," occasionally still slathers it on too thick with the saccharine sentimentality and telegraphed romantic clichés, but by and large, the picture still succeeds in its heartwarming aims thanks to its naked, heart-on-its sleeve sincerity. Not an easy trick in an age of cynicism and information, but one that ultimately works regardless.
And the heartfelt, sun-stroked film essentially vacillates between two points of light – the sad-sack melancholy of grief and heartache as sonically expressed by Bob Dylan, Temple Of The Dog, My Morning Jacket, Bon Iver and the bittersweet likes – and the stadium-like anthemic optimism generally rendered by Jónsi’s (of Icelandic band Sigur Rós) glimmering elfin-score. As per usual in Crowe films, music is everything.
Credited to writers Aline Brosh McKenna ("The The Devil Wears Prada") and Crowe (she adapted the book, Crowe rewrote the script to suit his barometer), “We Bought A Zoo,” is based on the memoir by Benjamin Mee, a widower who moved his young family to the countryside to renovate and re-open a struggling zoo. Only the original locale of Dartmoor, England, is transported to Southern California for Crowe’s version of this occasionally weepy, frequently uplifting tale.
As Benjamin Mee, Matt Damon plays a father barely keeping his head above water. His wife Katherine (played by Stephanie Szostak in brief flashback) passed away from cancer six months ago and as an adventure-junkie journalist, always looking for the next adventure, parenthood as a single father isn’t what he envisioned. His petulant 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford) is a ball of anger and resentment at the world, acting out with dark, graphic drawings that are spooking his teachers and classmates alike. And his 7-year-old daughter Rosie (a super endearing Maggie Elizabeth Jones), while a helpful and resilient ball of sunshine, still needs a parent to guide her along the way.
Attempting to escape it all – and reeling from Dylan’s expulsion from school – Mee and his family try and find a new start, eventually landing on a charming, quaint and isolated little house and acreage located nine miles away from the closest part of Californian civilization. There’s one catch: it’s a zoo and to own the property is to own, manage and run the zoo, no exceptions. When Mee agrees to this seemingly foolhardy and irresponsible decision, “We Bought A Zoo” kicks into gear with all the obstacles and tribulations that running a zoo might bring that conveniently run parallel with all the conflicts that Mee and his family encounter, plus the ones he faces with his new staff.
As his older brother Duncan Mee, Thomas Haden Church is a good soulful comic-relief counterpoint to Damon’s deep and serious lead trying to jump headfirst into a new “adventure” he knows nothing about. Mee’s especially unqualified and out of his depth as an owner of a zoo; the park soon becomes a bottomless money pit, but his resolve to keep it running is both a testament to his dreams and a tribute to his departed wife. That may sound like pretty middle of the road stuff and that's essentially what it is. For better or worse, Crowe's 'Zoo' is unapologetically mainstream.
Scarlett Johansson plays Kelly Foster, the tough, no-nonsense lead zoo keeper, and potential object of affection for Benjamin, and while their romance is charmingly skirted around and flirted with, it’s also wisely not very consummated. The zoo groundskeepers are rounded out by Patrick Fugit, Carla Gallo, Angus Macfadyen and Elle Fanning. John Michael Higgins plays a rather cartoonish and fey villain as the inspector who may or may not give them their license for their intended July opening. Fortunately his character only appears sparingly.
While broadly drawn in story and fairly predictable, even banal at times, where the film counts and scores major emotional points is in the details that are unmistakably Crowe’s. Much of the story revolves around communication and or lack thereof, be it with father and son, animal and human or employer and employee. The writer/director nails a few killer monologues, particularly one where Damon has to plead with a dying Begal tiger to eat so it will get better. Or at least keep on living for a little while longer. Damon’s Mee pretty much pleads with everyone. This is a struggling man looking for a little help and a hand. And with a mercurial son and unpredictable motley crew of a staff, he finds himself a support system – albeit one that he sometimes has to fight to help him lead the way. Mee is ultimately a natural born explorer, who ultimately is forced to become a not-so-natural leader. But the man is trying his heart out and this is where Crowe’s script and direction knock it out of the park every time. It’s hard not to empathize with that type of character.
Damon wasn’t kidding when he said a Cameron Crowe-made mixtape was meant to capture the spirit of his forthcoming film. “We Bought A Zoo,” lives and breathes that tone – again that mix of melancholic sadness and vibrant hope – through and through. Much of that tenor is delivered through the picture’s rock-inflected soundtrack which admittedly does use music as a crutch, but thankfully doesn’t feel like a video montage waiting around every corner. Jónsi’s music is a bit much at times, the spirited twinkling dialing up “hope, hope and more hope,” far too often, but it’s never quite as grating as Sigur Rós’ “Hoppípolla” – a song so ubiquitous now, you’ve probably heard in about 15 commercials about water, positive energy or tampons, but it fortunately still isn’t much of a deal breaker (though one could accuse Crowe of wanting the last half of ‘Zoo’ to feel like an extended commercial for the uplifting “Hoppípolla” sound).
While Scarlett Johansson is good as the hardworking, good listening keeper and Damon aces each pivotal scene – including a heartfelt and painfully raw scene here he and his son scream their pain and anguish at each other – it’s actually Elle Fanning as Johansson’s innocent and naïve cousin who steals every scene she’s in. The girl radiates her character’s sense of joy and wonder, continuing to prove to she's one to watch.
Somewhere in the last 30 minutes of the two-hour-and-ten minute picture Crowe could use an editor for tone and length. The film has about four endings and the last act is a repeat roller coaster ride of bleak, "oh no, we've failed" last-minute obstacles and "surprise, everything's gonna be a ok!" 11th hour jubilation which borders on insufferable manipulation, to be blunt. But the characters and story are so likeable the picture manages to evade any real sense of sustainable resent on the audience's part.
Thankfully, much more “Jerry Maguire” than “Elizabethtown,” while ‘Zoo’ is unven and pushes the uplifting/inspirational button far too often in its syrupy last act, it is undeniably a feel-good crowd-pleaser that will likely find holiday-ready audiences laughing and weeping in all the intended places. The cynical-hearted will sneer at Crowe’s latest endeavor and periodically, you’d be hard-pressed to fault them, but “We Bought A Zoo” does feel-good well, and like a deeply-felt cry that feels well-earned, it feels rather satisfying. Sure, there’s a little sunshine around every dark corner is about as cliché as you can get, but Crowe makes that familiar mood feel awfully human, meaningful and occasionally even momentous. [B]