Mark Reviews Movies

We Bought a Zoo


2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Cameron Crowe

Cast: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Thomas Haden Church, Angus Macfadyen, Elle Fanning, Patrick Fugit, John Michael Higgins

MPAA Rating: PG (for language and some thematic elements)

Running Time: 2:04

Release Date: 12/23/11

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 22, 2011

We Bought a Zoo is perhaps the best movie that could be made in which the story of a recent widower who transfers his past determination to keep his wife alive upon an old, sick tiger—thus coming face to face once again with the grief he has tried so hard to escape—is treated with such matter-of-fact blatancy. There's no doubt people do such things in reality—whether they speak those feelings aloud or not—but screenwriters Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe (who also directed) sell the metaphors (In addition to the tiger, there's, well, the whole zoo) a bit too much.

That it's based on a true story (A quick perusal of the description of the memoir by Benjamin Mee shows how the screenwriters have changed it—for better or worse is unknown to me) is, once again, inconsequential; the only important matter is how that story is packaged here. Its tidy collection of stable but mourning protagonists and quirky but underwhelming side characters (including an antagonistic government inspector thrown in for an obligatory external obstacle) reflects the script's tendency to neatly catalog the story's messy emotions. The movie's best scenes (particularly its surprisingly heartfelt coda) drop the artifice and address those underlying feelings directly without the artifice of sentimental metaphors.

In the movie, Matt Damon plays Mee, a thrill-seeking journalist who is still grieving over the death of his wife. He cringes even when he passes places that are old and familiar to his relationship with her, especially the coffee shop where they first met. In need of a total change, he quits his job and takes his children Dylan (Colin Ford) and Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) house hunting (The realtor (J.B. Smoove) is disarmed by Rosie's blunt announcement that her mother is dead; a precocious kid is essentially mandatory in such material). Nothing seems to fit, as they move further and further from civilization, measured in yuppie terms—the time it takes to get to the nearest retail store.

In the relative middle of nowhere (a whole 20 minutes from the closest store), they find a fine, old fixer-upper on 18 acres of land, like out of a Normal Rockwell. It's perfect, Benjamin announces, but there's a catch. The home is in the center of an old zoo, shut down for two years. The house comes as-is, complete with lions, tigers, bears, and peacocks that roam the grounds (Rosie takes a liking to them, allowing for yet another metaphor in the hatching of the birds' eggs).

It also comes with a staff—including head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), her niece Lily (Elle Fanning, whose character has an on-and-off first-love relationship with Dylan), temperamental grounds-keeper Peter MacCready (Angus Macfadyen), and others who fill in the background of scenes (including Patrick Fugit as the reptile expert and Carla Gallo as a rabble-rouser who thinks Benjamin is in over his head and sure to fail)—and multiple business expenses. Benjamin's brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), who assumes Benjamin could just meet a woman to solve his problems, is horrified by the decision. Duncan, a frugal accountant, is a clear, potential obstruction for Benjamin, but at least the character's opposition comes across as a sensible voice of reason, motivated by actual concern for his brother's well-being.

The same cannot be said of Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins), an anally retentive inspector with an apparent agenda to close the zoo before its big opening day for any miniscule infraction he can find. He has two scenes, only present to establish conflict (He and MacCready have a contentious, unexplained past), played for idiosyncratic comedy, and undermining the actual struggle of the characters.

That is the broken dynamic between Benjamin and his children. While Rosie is thrilled with the idea of moving into a zoo (She exclaims the title of the movie twice), Dylan is miserable—not only with the decision, either. He draws dark and grotesque pictures in his notebook (a hobby that gets him into trouble at school early on) and mopes around the house, ready to strike out against his father at any given moment, especially when he overhears Benjamin talking to Kelly about the difficulty of being a father to such a kid, which Dylan takes as a personal attack.

Damon's performance, with his honest representation of a man trying to keep his head above water as the debts and problems pile up, anchors the movie (He has a scene in which he shouts at the ill tiger, which has resolved itself to die on its own terms, the same words we assume Benjamin wanted to say to his wife—but perhaps never had the chance—that still somehow works in spite of its literal quality), and the final scene, in which the memory of Benjamin's wife (Stephanie Szostak) occupies the same space as her surviving family, is truly touching. Scenes such as that, though, are the exception, as We Bought a Zoo veers too much and too often into the realm of palpable manipulation.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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