We Bought A Zoo (2011)
Director: Cameron Crowe
Writer: Aline Brosh McKenna, Cameron Crowe
Based On: “We Bought A Zoo” (Book) By: Benjamin Mee
Starring: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Patrick Fugit, Colin Ford, Elle Fanning, Angus MacFadyen, Peter Riegert
Country: United States
MPAA Rating: PG
Time: 124 minutes
Genre: Comedy, Drama
USA Release: 12/23/2011
On DVD (USA): 4/3/2012
After a six year hiatus from the feature film world Cameron Crowe is back with this based on a true story charmer called “We Bought A Zoo”. Although Crowe’s last film 2005’s “Elizabethtown” was both a critical and box office failure (however I quite liked it) his latest effort has him this time juggling quite a few animals. How will this look compared to his other works continue reading to find out.
“We Bought A Zoo” tells the true story of Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) who after the death of his wife is looking to start over for the sake of his kids Dylan (Colin Ford) and Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). So after Dylan gets expelled from school, Benjamin sees this as the perfect opportunity to find a new place to live. And after looking at countless houses he along with the help of Rosie find the perfect place but there is just one major problem, it’s a zoo. Now the Mee family along with their new staff of misfits lead by Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) must get the zoo up and running before they lose everything.
Now many people who have gone and seen this or will see this might find this cheesy and predictable, well you know what, it is. Benjamin Mee’s story however is still interesting and is even more so when you learn about the differences between the movie and actual fact. This doesn’t mean that I have read the book that this is based on or seen the 2007 documentary because I haven’t. But I have found a couple of articles that talk about it like the ages of his kids at the time and when his wife actually died after buying the zoo along with the process of getting the zoo that was much much harder than in the movie. Of course the differences were made to keep the running time trimmed down and keep it in one direction however it is still over 2 hours long. With these differences it made the story a lot more predictable then if Crowe and his co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna would have kept some of the actual truth in, like how much harder it was to get the zoo. Crowe is a great storyteller and I have been a fan of his since I first saw “Almost Famous” (which I believe was the first film I saw of his) when I was about 12 years old, so going in to this I was ready to enjoy a nice, round and complete story and on one level that is what I got. But because Crowe & McKenna’s adaptation was very predictable and cheesy it left me somewhat unsatisfied. It wasn’t the story itself that was unsavory it was how it guided you through the story. It used all of the tricks to get you tear up at the right times with it’s overused sense of inspiring it’s audience with it’s overused lines of motivation and montage like moments and had those sandwiched in-between really good parts. Looking back not everything was corny, there were actually a good amount of honest enjoyment and I did find myself getting swept up in some of the more cheesy parts (yes I will say I teared up at times). Crowe does have a way of giving you a good heartwarming story even if it has it’s problems and in the end he does leave you with a sweet and somewhat charming movie that will have you and your kids enjoying all of the wonderful zoo animals but it’s not all coming from the script. To quote Roger Ebert “The result is too much formula and not enough human interest.”
Like many Cameron Crowe fans will tell you, his trademark is compiling many great songs in the soundtrack, this has occurred in probably all of his films and he does it again here, although I must say it isn’t his best work as many of the songs were just as predictable as the film itself. He choose some really great and underappreciated songs but when they are mixed in with the story and also the score itself done by Jónsi it just stirs it into being more predictable although still somewhat charming. As for Crowe’s directing (since I haven’t really talked about that) it’s great as always he knows just what he wants to show us. Like it is talked about in the movie “what do you like better the animals or the people?”, Crowe makes sure to show us both sides and let us give our own answer to the question even though the characters also answer the question themselves. We see struggles and relationships forming between people and also the animals. He gives us close-ups of animals interacting with each other and also various shots that resemble things you might see in a documentary.
But it’s what the actors bring to the table that gives the movie it’s charm. However the charm mostly lies with Matt Damon who portrays the everyday man quite well as Benjamin Mee. He has no problem making himself look and sound stupid at times. But overall we see the smart man trying his hardest to get his family back on their feet after the death of his wife/mother. His struggles with his son are somewhat clichéd and contrived at times having things work out too well or too quickly. Even so there is some unpredictability as Dylan takes things the wrong way when you though it would be quite the opposite. Along with Damon there is Scarlett Johansson who plays Kelly Foster the lead zookeeper she of course is set to possibly be Benjamin’s love interest but that is here nor there. After the two meet they quickly bump heads as to how the zoo should be fixed up and handled, but things begin to calm down after they learn more about one another. Johansson plays down her looks with the typical farm look and spends an awful lot of time just staring and watching Benjamin and his family. Now that might be all well and good since her character might or might not be his love interest but when most of her shots consist of this it’s a little disjoining not to say that she doesn’t have her charming parts in the movie because she does it’s just not on par with some of her past work.
The other relationship forming is the one between Dylan and Lily (played by Colin Ford and Elle Fanning). It runs parallel to that of Benjamin and Kelly’s but starts out completely opposite just like the two characters personalities. This story line was pretty interesting to see where it would go although it also has some predictability it was overall very cute. As for the actors themselves they both did a pretty good job. Colin Ford is someone I known very little about having only seen him in 2 other movies and in those he does ok for his age and of course has grown as an actor since then. Elle Fanning who I think is one of the best young actresses working today (and is actually a better actress then her sister in my opinion) is a little bit scary in this with her peppiness. It’s a completely different personality then what we saw in “Super 8”. She is very gitty and overly enthusiastic, which can be a good things but at times was a little over-the-top here. But I guess between her peppy personality and his grim one they are suppose to balance out.
As for the rest of the cast they consist of a lot of actors but most have only a few scenes or very little lines. Of the rest of the cast there were Thomas Haden Church who delivers a fun and comical performance as Duncan Mee, Benjamin’s brother; Angus MacFadyen who played the carpenter of the zoo who has a problems with the zoo inspector; Patrick Fugit who must have just been there to fill a role because he has maybe a handful of lines and always had a monkey on his shoulder; Carla Gallo who plays the secretary of the zoo gives a pretty awful performance which I thought was very over-the-top and ridicules as she turns into a somewhat villain. There is also John Michael Higgins who play the zoo inspector, he was hilarious the first time we meet him and then became very clichéd the second. And of course we can’t forget the very cute and loveable Maggie Elizabeth Jones who plays Rosie Mee, she was very free-spirited and we get to have a lot of fun watching her interact with the animals. I think she gave a very realistic and honest performance. It was Jones, Church and Higgins that really made the movie a lot of fun and they were the best of the limited supporting cast.
Overall Cameron Crowe’s attempt to turn this based on a true story into a movie is over taken with much predictably and clichés. It gives it’s all and does have some charm and good natured fun and warmth. But thats mostly thanks to Matt Damon’s honest and charming performance as the struggling grief-stricken father which helped keep this from being a rotten movie, if only barely. Either way I’d say save this for the kids to really enjoy and turn your sights to Crowe’s better work which lies in “Say Anything”, “Singles”, “Jerry Maguire” and “Almost Famous”.