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PopEntertainment.com > Reviews > Movie Reviews > We Bought a Zoo

MOVIE REVIEWS

WE BOUGHT A ZOO (2012)

Starring Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Patrick Fugit, Elle Fanning, Colin Ford, John Michael Higgins, Angus Macfadyen, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, J.B. Smoove, Carla Gallo, Stephanie Szostak,  Peter Riegert, Dustin Ybarra, Cristy Joy, Michael Panes, Kym Whitley and Desi Lydic.

Screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe.

Directed by Cameron Crowe.

Distributed by 20th Century Fox.  124 minutes.  Rated PG.

 

Everyday Beautiful

 

We Bought a Zoo

We Bought a Zoo is the first feature film by acclaimed writer/director Cameron Crowe since the disappointing Elizabethtown six years ago.   (Of course, we are not counting the former music journalist's 2011 rock documentaries Pearl Jam Twenty and The Union.)  Before that, a Crowe fan would have to go back to 2001's also-disappointing Vanilla Sky. 

So, yes, the last time Crowe truly hit his stride as a filmmaker was in the wonderful semi-autobiographical 2000 movie Almost Famous.  This is pretty shocking considering the man's uninterrupted run of brilliance as a filmmaker up to that point, a body of work that included Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire, Singles, Say Anything and even Fast Times at Ridgemont High (which Crowe wrote, but did not direct.).

Therefore, the mostly good news is that We Bought a Zoo, while not quite living up to the heights of some of Crowe's previous works, is definitely a return to form for him.  Flawed though it might be - and the film is noticeably cornier and more contrived than Crowe normally attempts - it's clearly his best film since Famous.

Perhaps that corniness stems from Crowe's teaming up with co-screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses, Morning Glory). However, on the good side, McKenna is not just a corny chick-flick writer, she too has a smart ear for how people talk.  Her presence here may make Crowe warm and fuzzier, but she does not totally dilute his skills like a less-talented collaborator may have.

We Bought a Zoo is based loosely on a true story - though it has been transplanted from the British countryside to sun-dappled US soils. 

Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a young widower who is trying hard to deal with his wife's premature passing and care for their children, a disaffected fourteen-year-old boy named Dylan (Colin Ford) and his super-sweet (sometimes just a touch too sweet) seven-year-old girl Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones).  With memories of his wife everywhere and his son getting into more and more trouble in school, Benjamin decides the family needs to be totally uprooted and find a new home and life.

They are shown houses all over the area by an enthusiastic real estate agent (J.B. Smoove) but can't find that perfect place.  They finally find it out in the country, a beautiful old manor deep in the country.  However, the place comes with a "complication" as the realtor keeps mentioning (though, oddly, he won't actually come out and say what the complication is until it is revealed to Mee and his daughter by chance.). 

The house is attached to a fully functioning (though currently closed to the public) zoo.  One of the conditions of buying the house placed by the state is that the zoo will have to be fixed up and reopened.  Mee realizes that would be crazy - he knows nothing about animals and even less about running a zoo.  However, when he sees how excited his daughter is to live amongst all the animals, he throws caution to the wind and decides it will be an adventure for his children.  Against the advice of his older brother (Thomas Hayden Church), Benjamin decides to spend all of his sizable inheritance on renovating the zoo in time to open it that summer.  He has less than six months to get it back into shape.

He also inherits the zoo's eccentric staff, including the workaholic zookeeper Kelly (Scarlet Johansson), her 13-year old niece Lily (the adorable Elle Fanning), an alcoholic zoo planner named Peter (Angus Macfadyen) and a handyman named Robin who literally always has a monkey on his shoulder (Patrick Fugit, who had been the star of Crowe's Almost Famous.).  While some of this makes no sense - why is Lily working there, don't they have child labor laws? - it is still charming and fun.

The workers don't know if they trust the new owner and Mee isn't sure whether he can pull it off.  However, he enters into a sweet and slow potential new relationship with Kelly as they work together to rebuild the place.  His son also starts to shine as the work and the attentions of Lily finally draw him out of his funk.

And, needless to say, the animals are gorgeous, and to his credit, Crowe avoids overdoing the cutesy shots of large animals traipsing around the zoo.  They are just a fact of life in this world, a majestic and beautiful daily reminder of why Mee is going through all the problems and hardships he is facing.

Yes, yes, it is cheesy and a little saccharine, but it's also so sincerely filmed and good-hearted that you'd have to be a real Grinch to not fall under the film's spell.  This sweet sincerity is best shown in what may be the film's finest moment, when Mee takes his children to the cafe where he met their mother and reenacts the meeting for them.  It is a heartfelt and almost magic moment in a film that has several of them. 

We Bought a Zoo's sentimentality is not cynical, which is why this film works so well when so many other similar films would be unbearable.  Crowe has always been a director who wore his heart on his sleeve, but he also has always been able to avoid crass manipulations.  We Bought a Zoo flies closer to that flame than most of his movies, but it always stays safely on the right side of the line.

It's nice to see that Crowe is back.  Even second-best Cameron Crowe is pretty special.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2012 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 5, 2012.

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Copyright ©2012 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: April 5, 2012.

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