REVIEW: ‘We Bought A Zoo’
REVIEW: ‘Zoo’ lets characters not animals tell the story
We all received a joint Christmas present this year – director Cameron Crowe’s foray back into the world of romantic comedies. Crowe’s filmography includes 1989’s “Say Anything” and 1996’s “Jerry Maguire,” and six years after his last traditional narrative release (“Elizabethtown”), he returns with “We Bought a Zoo.” Crowe is one of my favorite directors due to his solid storytelling that involves offbeat stories with eclectic characters. After a half-decade layoff, how would “We Bought a Zoo” stand up against Crowe’s prior rom-coms?
When the wife of adventure writer Benjamin Mee dies, he is left floundering in an attempt to raise his young son and daughter. In an effort to move forward, Benjamin (Matt Damon) decides to move the family from their current home. His search leads the family to the dilapidated Rosemoor Animal Park, which houses dozens of animals and endangered species. Seeing an opportunity for an epic adventure and a fresh start for his family, Benjamin sinks his savings into purchasing and restoring the zoo. He gets more than he bargained for in the face of obstacles that include growing financial debt, balancing the zoo animals and staff, and the building grief within his family.
A comedy like this could go one of two ways – a collection of gags involving the animals and new unsuspecting owners, or trust in the characters to tell the story. Not surprisingly, Crowe decided on the latter, putting his faith in a talented and diverse cast. Matt Damon continues to show his range as an actor – this time as the sympathetic single father and widower. The film also features a Crowe staple with a collection of quirky characters. Benjamin’s older brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church, best known from TV’s “Wings”) continuously offers bad advice, curmudgeon USDA inspector Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins, “Fired Up!”) perfects a running gag involving his inspection devices, and zoo architect Peter MacCready (Angus Macfadyen, “Braveheart”) claims Ferris stole all his ideas.
The movie isn’t all about whacky characters though. Scarlett Johansson is great as the resident zookeeper and Benjamin’s potential love interest – Crowe does a magnificent job of letting this part of their relationship simmer throughout the film. Colin Ford (TV’s “Supernatural”) and Maggie Elizabeth Jones round out the Mee family and Elle Fanning (“Super 8”) plays an aloof home-schooled Lily. Ford and Fanning deliver the classic Lloyd Dobler/Jerry Maguire romantic moment Crowe fans will be waiting for.
“We Bought a Zoo” is based on the true story of the Dartmoor Zoological Park in England, with the screenplay adapted from Benjamin’s Mee memoir. The film and overall story is enjoyable if a bit contrived. The fact that the Mee clan finds a ready-made family, complete with age-appropriate love interests for both father and son, comes off as contrived. Damon’s vulnerable performance as Benjamin Mee is raw – a rare find in the romantic comedy genre. His struggle with a sick animal that needs to be put down is heart wrenching as it stirs up memories of his wife’s illness.
Damon carries but doesn’t necessarily make this film. There is a chemistry among the entire cast that pours through the screen – from the warm and fuzzy moments to the uncomfortable exchanges between Benjamin and his son. The animals take a backseat to the human drama that plays out – though they serve as competent minor characters that help move the plot along. Crowe is back and still has the romantic comedy narrative magic with a story of one man’s determination to save his family, his sanity, and as it turns out, a zoo.
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