starring: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Elle Fanning, Patrick Fugit, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, John Michael Higgins, J.B. Smoove
written by: Cameron Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna
directed by: Cameron Crowe
MPAA: Rated PG for language and some thematic elements.
In Cameron Crowe’s unabashedly sentimental We Bought A Zoo, Matt Damon shares top billing with his toothsome smile as Benjamin Mee, a recent widower who apparently works the adventure beat for the Los Angeles Times. A self-proclaimed “adventure junkie,” Benjamin is the kind of free spirit who casually makes impulse calls about important decisions and, when questioned, says, “Why not?” while flashing an infuriating smile that says, Don’t you wish you shared my sense of whimsy? No. No, I do not.
One such impulse decision involves uprooting his two children, troubled teen Dylan (Colin Ford) and preternaturally insightful and ethereal 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, wielding her cuteness like a pipe bomb), and moving them from the city out into the sticks to live in a spacious country fixer-upper that also happens to come with an ailing zoo. Despite Dylan’s anguished emo protests, Benjamin throws himself into renovating the zoo with the assistance of the year-round staff, which includes Almost Famous alum Patrick Fugit with a Capuchin on his shoulder, Elle Fanning as a home-schooled country mouse whose crush on Dylan manifests in startling herp-derp grins, and a de-glammed Scarlett Johansson as Benjamin’s inevitable love interest (which came as a disappointment, because someone told me she played Damon’s lesbian sister – let’s make that movie, people!).
Loosely adapted from Mee’s memoir of the same name by Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna (the prolific rom-com scribe responsible for I Don’t Know How She Does It, 27 Dresses, and Morning Glory, if that tells you anything), We Bought A Zoo plays like a cheerfully optimistic inversion of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants: in both films, a grieving father takes his two children on an odyssey in response to the loss of their mother. Both films feature a surly and uncooperative teen who has been kicked out of school. Both feature a protagonist who has to decide what to do with a large natural resource. Both also have to make tough choices about allowing a living being to die. And both are ultimately about learning to let go in the face of mortality.
But while We Bought A Zoo is based (again, loosely) on a true story and The Descendants is fiction, the latter ultimately rings far more true than the former. Payne’s film dwells in the ambiguity and complexity of life, the messiness of fractured family relationships, and is truly genuine with both its laughs and its tears; Crowe’s film is all too eager to hand down its neatly packaged life lessons, which announce themselves as clearly as bullet points appearing at the bottom of the screen.
Crowe has been having a pretty rough time since his masterpiece, Almost Famous, in 2000. He followed it up immediately the next year with the hugely polarizing Vanilla Sky (which I happen to think is underrated), then released the critically reviled Elizabethtown in 2005, which is generally regarded as his worst film (and, to some, is considered one of the worst films of all time). We Bought A Zoo is his seventh narrative feature film as a director, and it’s neither his best nor his worst.
The actors are fine. Damon, despite playing the kind of character I loathe, carries the film ably; he redeems himself in one particularly intense fight with Dylan, played with great feeling and sensitivity by Ford. Fanning, 13, continues to dazzle with remarkable beauty and maturity for such a young actor. It is amusing to see Johansson stomping around in boots and short no-nonsense hair. And the dependably funny Thomas Haden Church scores laughs as Damon’s brother. There is also a heart-tugging score by Jónsi of Sigur Rós; juxtaposed against the film, it is a study in good whimsy vs. bad whimsy.
We Bought A Zoo is a perfectly fine PG-rated family film for the holidays, but it falters by any other criteria. It is easy, obvious, and wholly predictable. It is also disappointing in its female characterizations. In addition to making Rosie one of those Magically Wise Princess cliches and forcing its other two female characters to exist almost entirely as love interests for its men, the script also eliminates a pivotal matriarchal role from the true story: Benjamin Mee’s mother Amelia, who purchased the zoo along with him. What’s the matter, Cameron Crowe? You wanted to make sure this animal kingdom was clearly a patriarchy? Sorry, pay no attention. I’ve been reading Roseanne Barr’s Roseannearchy book and it’s getting to me.
Crowe has said that he made Elizabethtown for his deceased father, and he made Zoo for his children. It is commonly said that art coming from a personal place is the best kind of art. Crowe seems intent on disproving that.
We Bought A Zoo opens nationwide today.