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We Bought a Zoo
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Go Do That Zoo Redo That You Do So Well"
5 stars

For many people, the very premise of "We Bought a Zoo"--a man and his two young children, still reeling from a recent tragedy, purchase a dilapidated zoo and restore it with the help of a group of colorful oddballs--makes it sound like the kind of drippy excuse for family entertainment that Disney used to churn out during their fallow period in the Seventies with a cast featuring the likes of Dean Jones, Don Knotts and assorted moppets of unrelenting cuteness. Even the presence of Cameron Crowe as director and co-writer may raise a few eyebrows from those suspecting that the filmmaker is simply retreating to make a simple and fairly obvious crowd-pleaser in an attempt to restore his career in the wake of the critical and commercial rejection of his last feature film, "Elizabethtown." I will admit that even despite my admiration for all of Crowe's previous films, including "Say Anything," "Almost Famous" and yes, even "Elizabethtown," I went into the screening for this one with a fair bit of trepidation, mostly because, by and large, I have a tendency to strenuously resist movies featuring cute kids and/or cuter animals. Happily, the film is so much better than it appears to be that even I was a little shocked as to how well it works--this is a straight-up charmer from start to finish that even the hardiest of curmudgeons will find themselves hard-pressed to resist.

Loosely based on a true story, though the locale has been shifted from England to southern California, the film stars Matt Damon as Benjamin Mee, a journalist who is struggling to cope with the recent death of his beloved wife and raising their two kids on his own. While the youngest, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), is content to simply be sweet and adorable all the time, older son Dylan (Colin Ford) is sullen, withdrawn and channels all of his burgeoning teen angst into causing trouble at school and creating illustrations grisly enough to have been deemed too grim and unsettling for usage during presentations of "The Wall." Despite the encouragement of brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church) to get out there and begin again and the apparent willingness of half the single moms in the area to help him do so, Benjamin finds himself in a rut until he impulsively decides to quit his job and move his family to a new home in order to make a fresh start of things and to help Dylan before he gets into real trouble. While house-hunting, he stumbles upon a rural property that seems absolutely perfect--reasonable price, big house, 18 acres--except for one little hitch; included on the property is the Rosemoor Animal Park a long-shuttered zoo that still houses a number of animals, including a few endangered species, that the new owner would have to take over as well. (The legal basis of this sounds a bit hinky but since I am no expert in the nuances of California property law, I am willing to let it slide except to note that this is one instance in which the premise might have seemed a bit more plausible had it still been set in England.)

Despite the craziness of the whole idea, Ben--Spoiler Alert!--buys the zoo and relocates there with Dylan and Rosie to get it up and running once again. Aiding him in this effort are the small band of oddballs who still work at the place, including workaholic zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), capuchin-wielding aide Robin (Patrick Fugit) and hard-drinking groundskeeper MacCready (Angus MacFadyen). At first, Kelly is suspicious as to why someone with no previous experiences with zoos would suddenly choose to purchase one but begins to take him more seriously once he begins to lay out the cash necessary to get the place back up to code in time to open for the all-important summer months. As it turns out, while his new family is pretty much behind him in his quest, his actual family is another story. While Rosie adores the place--not even an escaped snake crawling around her feet at one point can dissuade her--Duncan worries that Ben is throwing away all of his money on a bizarre whim while Dylan grows more and more sullen by the day and not even the obvious attentions of Lily (Elle Fanning), Kelly's younger cousin, can prevent him from wishing that he were back in his old home with his old friends. Nevertheless, Ben continues on and face such obstacles as dwindling finances, ailing animals and a persnickety zoo inspector (John Michael Higgins) in his quest to successfully reopen the zoo. Of course, I wouldn't dream of revealing how it all turns out but if you are cynical enough to suspect that this film somehow doesn't end with the zoo opening again, there is a very good chance this may not quite be your kind of movie after all.

The first time I saw "We Bought a Zoo," I liked it a lot but I must confess that it struck me as being the first Cameron Crowe film that I could imagine being made by someone else--even when he remade the Spanish hit "Open Your Eyes" as "Vanilla Sky," he approached the material in such a way that it felt as personal at times as any of his self-generated material. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing but coming from Crowe, one of the more reliably heartfelt and personal major-league filmmakers working today, it just felt a little odd at times. Watching it for a second time, however, that sensation pretty much disappeared as it finally began to dawn on me that even though the basic story is the kind that you can imagine being handled effortlessly by a genial hack like Chris Columbus or Shawn Levy, Crowe has indeed brought enough of a personal touch to the proceedings to make it seem perfectly at home with the rest of his filmography. While others might have tried to pump up the drama by inserting a straightforward villain into the piece or relentlessly tugged at the heartstrings with endless cuts to cute animals, Crowe is a little more ambitious here. As with his other movies, there is no bad guy per se--even the zoo inspector, although played largely for laughs, is merely there to do his job and has no hidden agenda--and his narrative is driven less by story machinations and more by the various characters interact with each other and grow and change as a result. As for the animals, with the exception of the aforementioned capuchin, the animals are not overused and when they are deployed, such as when a brown bear escapes or when there is discussion about how to humanely care for an aging tiger on his last legs, they too are used to further the story instead of supplying moments of cheap and easy sentiment in a film that has no other idea of how to generate them on its own.

Crowe's screenplay, on which he shares credit with "The Devil Wears Prada" scribe Aline Brosh McKenna, and direction are impressive in the way that he tells what initially seems to be a shaggy dog tale that slowly and almost imperceptibly becomes tighter and more focused as it progresses--this is one of those rare films that actually gets better as it gets to the end instead of running out of gas before the finish line. There are any number of wonderfully written and executed scenes here--I'm thinking of Ben's first confrontation with Kelly, his last major one with Dylan and the absolutely perfect little grace note that the film concludes on--as well as plenty of nifty bits of dialogue that might have sounded forced or cheesy in other hands (such as Ben's conviction that all that is needed to get through the big hurdles in life is "20 seconds of insane courage) and disarmingly amusing lines that help to reduce the potential schmaltziness (including jokes based around, of all things, the existence of the Easter Bunny and the cult classic "Altered States.") There are plenty of other elements familiar to Crowe's oeuvre that fans will pick up on as well--a large and colorful supporting cast who are all given their own moments in which to shine, an unfailingly cheery and sunny attitude that permeates the story (even the clerks at Home Depot are as friendly as can be) without minimizing the dark times that the characters are going through and, perhaps least surprising of all, a nifty and jam-packed soundtrack that alternates between a score from Sigur Ros' Jonsi with classic cuts from the expected likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Tom Petty, to name a few. (The zoo may be on the edge of collapse but at least its jukebox is well-appointed.) All of these things work wonderfully here and help to make the film feel more like a personal statement from Crowe than some may have been expecting. (That said, there is admittedly one cringe-inducing moment when a scene involving a surprise downpour is scored with Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going to Rain Today," a lovely song but one that is a touch too on-the-nose for my blood.)

W.C. Fields once supposedly claimed that he never wanted to work in the same scene with animals or children--the theory being that most audiences would find their attentions gravitating towards those elements and away from him. Needless to say, W.C. Fields presumably would not have wanted anything to do with "We Bought a Zoo" but Matt Damon proves himself to be more than up to the challenge. One of the few big-time movie stars working today who can convincingly pass himself off on the screen as an ordinary guy, Damon does a wonderful job here of playing Benjamin as both an idealistic dreamer and as a confused guy who is still grieving the loss of his wife, has trouble relating to his son and harbors some quiet doubts as to whether or not he has doomed both his family and the zoo in his quest for a new life. Among the other actors, a glammed-down Scarlett Johansson is more endearing and likable than she has been in a long time as Kelly, giving the role the kind of spark that makes the character seem like the kind of fresh, feisty type straight out of a Billy Wilder movie and Thomas Haden Church supplies any number of laughs as Ben's brother and the sole voice of reason. As Ben's two children, Colin Ford is refreshingly prickly as the troubled Dylan--there are times when, even though you sympathize with what he is going through, you just want to smack him--and Maggie Elizabeth Jones is almost literally too cute for words as Rosie. As for Elle Fanning, who plays a younger version of the kind of quirky dream girl that Crowe has presented in the past via Kate Hudson in "Almost Famous" and Kirsten Dunst in "Elizabethtown," all I will say is that if there remains a 13-year-old boy out there who didn't already develop a giant crush on her after her memorable turn in "Super 8" earlier this year, they will almost certainly do so after getting a load of her here.

It's a funny thing about movies--nearly all of them are emotionally manipulative to one degree or another but the only time that people ever really notice them is when the films don't work and the manipulation comes across as exceptionally blatant as a result. For example, the upcoming films "War Horse" and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" are amazingly manipulative but because they don't work as films--and believe me, they don't work with an unholy vengeance--their crass manipulations are so obvious that they become downright insulting after a while. Obviously, a film like "We Bought a Zoo" is pretty manipulative as well--with cute kids, endangered animals and Scarlett Johansson as a zookeeper, how can it not be?--but because it is made with such skill and finesse, it earns every one of its big emotional payoffs and then some. The end result is a film that is pretty much a total delight from top to bottom and even if you don't think that it is the kind that you might normally go for, it turns out that it really is.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=20780&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/22/11 18:01:34
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User Comments

11/05/12 Dr.Lao A good gimmick buried under maudlin wounded man cliches. Watchable, but that's all 3 stars
5/05/12 The Taitor A good to decent family movie but there are a couple of s and a bombs 3 stars
3/12/12 Rachel Macadamia Nuts Miscast and overrated-for-hotness Scarlett Johansson is more a distraction than a boon. 3 stars
1/25/12 Devin Sabas a sweet family movie with a stong cast. when cameron crowe is on he is on 4 stars
1/16/12 Chris. Not bad, lagged toward the end. Designed to try to make you cry. 4 stars
1/12/12 Donald Hallett I liked it a lot a little sappy but good 4 stars
1/04/12 Joanna Cumberbatch Too much sentimentality, too little real animal interest. 3 stars
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  23-Dec-2011 (PG)
  DVD: 03-Apr-2012


  DVD: 03-Apr-2012

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