The bitter cynic within me — located just left of the pancreas, if we’re being precise — would want nothing more than to rip into the manipulative emotional rollercoaster that is Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo, the kind of on-rails Hallmark drama where every ascent is followed by a predictable fall. Yet preventing such a scathing report is my inner romantic, a resident of the heart who shows up every now and then to remind me of something I tend to forget: I do enjoy a good rollercoaster.
So yes, I have dueling personalities living in my organs, and yes, I gave into the calculated charms of We Bought a Zoo more than I probably should have. In my defence, there isn’t a single film out there that doesn’t try to coerce the viewer into feeling this or that, so a movie that wears its agenda on its sleeve – consciously or not — is actually kind of refreshing. You don’t ever feel “played” watching We Bought a Zoo because, right from the word go, every move is obvious. Instead, you feel more like you’re just playing along, enjoying the journey despite knowing the destination, happy just to be a part of something unashamed of being nice.
Just to make sure we’re still on the same page, We Bought a Zoo is a story about a family who buys a zoo. (It’s that degree of insight that makes me the movie critic, and you, well, someone with a real job.) More specifically, this is the story of globe-trotting journo Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon; Contagion), who after losing his wife to cancer, decides that his midlife crisis will involve zebras. Much to the chagrin of his brother (Thomas Haden Church; Easy A), Ben spends a good chunk of his life savings to purchase the dilapidated park, which is home to 200-odd animals and half a dozen zookeepers. One of them is Scarlett Johansson (Iron Man 2), so I think we can all agree that Ben made a wise investment.
Also along for the ride are Ben’s 7-year-old daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones; Footloose) and 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford; Push), the former the kind of perpetually cute, do-no-wrong child that only exists in movies, and the latter a moody and resentful teenager that parents wish only existed in movies. Before Ben can open the zoo to the public, he needs to get the tick of approval from zoo inspector Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins; Bad Teacher), who is such an ass, they might as well put him in a pen beside the horses. Walter is due to evaluate the zoo in a couple of weeks, yet there’s more than a couple of weeks work to be done, so Ben and his crew must kick into gear should they hope to pass the test while inspirational music swells in the background.
Believe it or not, We Bought a Zoo is based on a true story, but judging from Crowe’s melodramatic direction and screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna’s prescription plotting, you’re probably going to err on the side of not believing it. Still, Benjamine Mee does exist, he did buy a zoo (in England) and did encounter many of the problems movie Ben faces in his effort to reopen it. He probably didn’t look like Matt Damon, sure, but just knowing that the story did happen does give the drama a bit more kick. Besides, between all the forced sentiment, McKenna’s screenplay occasionally stumbles upon a few moments of real emotion, which is a lot more than I was expecting from the writer of 27 Dresses and Morning Glory. I was also pleasantly surprised by the way Crowe chooses not to personify or overplay the cuteness of the animals, which would have been mandatory had the movie starred Eddie Murphy or Brendan Fraser. Instead, he has the good sense to portray the animals as caged beasts, not domestic pets, that answer to no one. This allows the movie to deal with the loss of both human and animal life in ways that are far more convincing than what the sugary-sweet premise might let on.
It’s a shame, then, that in place of the cutesy animals are a bunch of shallow and goofy humans, many of whom can best be described accordingly: monkey-on-shoulder man, inexplicably-nasty inspector, perpetually-drunk Scotsman and so on. It’s also disappointing to see Elle Fanning, so radiant and engaging in J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, reduced to a role where she does nothing but dote upon gloomy Dylan as though it’s her sole purpose in life. Kelly, Scarlett Johansson’s workaholic character, fairs a little better because she’s given slightly more to do than just stand around and flirt with Ben, although to say she’s involved for any greater reason than to attract Dads to the cinema is probably wishful thinking.
This brings us to Matt Damon, the bread holding this ham and cheese sandwich together. Looking over his CV, Damon only ever plays the earnest everyman, the kind who seldom puts a foot wrong, and if he does, it’s rarely his fault. Such a role played by someone other than Damon — say, Mark Wahlberg; his evil doppelganger — often comes across as bland and unconvincing. At best, they’re likeable, but rarely ever lovable. Yet Damon, a master of the ordinary, can create a rounded, convincing and utterly engaging character out of just about anyone, Benjamin Mee included.
So it’s thanks to Damon that I connected with We Bought a Zoo, despite knowing all too well that, objectively speaking, it’s not a very good movie. But no one can objectively speak when it comes to watching films, not even a critic. I went with my heart on this one, and even though my inner cynic lost this bout, I’m sure he’ll be back soon enough to enact his revenge.
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