We Bought A Zoo
- Director:Cameron Crowe
- Release Date:December 26, 2011
- Distributor:20th Century Fox
- Running time:124 minutes
- Film Worth:$16.00
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It’s by-the-numbers and overly earnest in places, but it brims with Cameron Crowe’s trademark optimism and a wonderfully humane performance by Matt Damon.
Cameron Crowe has to be one of the least cynical filmmakers working in Hollywood today and his starry-eyed brand of optimism - reflected in tales of touring rock bands and men experiencing crises' of faith - is nowhere more evident than in the director's latest long-player. Those hoping that Crowe would tackle edgier material after his 2005 critical flop, Elizabethtown, may be disappointed as We Bought A Zoo - the story of a grieving father and his two kids who buy and restore a dilapidated zoo - is the director's most wholesome and commercial work to date. But just as he did with his 1996 hit Jerry Maguire, Crowe reveals his knack at putting forth a polished work without dispensing with all the hallmarks that make him unique. Deftly sidestepping the saccharine Disney version that it could have so easily become given its premise, this is packed with all the warmth, heart and humanity that one has come to expect from a Cameron Crowe film.
Based on a true story (the type that would seem too schmaltzy to be dreamt up by a family-friendly studio if it weren't true), Crowe reworked a screenplay that had begun with Aline Brosh McKenna (the screenwriter behind The Devil Wears Prada and this year's Morning Glory). With the story transported from England to the more movie-friendly sunny California, Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a gutted single father who, having lost his wife six months earlier, is trying to keep it together for the sake of his kids, young teen Dylan (Colin Ford) and seven-year-old sweetheart Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). In an impulse decision, Benjamin quits his job and purchases a run-down zoo with the hope that the seachange will help him and his kids make a fresh start. He throws himself into learning the ropes with the help of overlooked zookeeper, Kelly, played by Scarlett Johansson. Such casting may incite eye-rolling, but the cautious romance that sparks between the pair - it's wisely never a central narrative thread - is warm and feels well earned by the film's end.
Throughout, the real narrative kicker is the mission to get the zoo up to inspection standards in time for a planned reopening, and in a predictable and often comedic trajectory, myriad obstacles are thrown in the path of Benjamin and his oddball crew of workers (they run out of dosh, the zoo inspector seemingly despises them, the animals get sick). This more lightweight fare is balanced by the personal drama of Benjamin's broken-but-not-beyond repair family, and while this is also a somewhat by-the-numbers exploration of grief, it reveals Crowe's deft ability to get to the heart of emotions even while working within a familiar template. But he doesn't do it alone and this film's biggest strength lies with its leading man. In another actor's hands (even one just a smidgen less talented), this would have likely turned into soft and sentimental gloop, but Damon brings such soulfulness to his performance that even the film's seemingly most clichéd moments are rooted in a truth and integrity.
And of course, there's the music, with Benjamin's journey unfolding to the earthy rumble of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Wilco, and the more otherworldly sounds of Sigur Ros' frontman Jonsi who Crowe recruited to compose the film's score, a mixture of older gems and original tracks. Having cut his teeth as a rock journalist for Rolling Stone, and with music always playing a pivotal role in shaping the mood of his films, Crowe has sometimes been criticised for letting songs do the work that he and his actors should be doing. Here, however, the music is used in the best way possible: to create a cinematic world and reveal a glimpse into the souls of his characters. Proving integral to the storytelling, Jonsi's wide-eyed, life-affirming score is the type that bypasses your head and aims straight for your heart. And that also stands as a pretty apt description for Mr Crowe's latest film.