WE BOUGHT A ZOO Review

While I have always enjoyed Cameron Crowe's films I have never relished in them to the point some of his more loyal fans might find necessary. His entire persona and the kind of films he is expected to make has never been more correct when describing his latest, "We Bought A Zoo". The difference in his newest feature and his hits of the past is that this one seems most easily marketable to the masses. Whereas "Almost Famous" was a surprise hit and "Jerry Maguire" had room to breathe because of its star, no one really remembers "Vanilla Sky" or "Elizabethtown" mostly due to their offbeat stories or lack of interest. Crowe is a respected director, but he is even more respected in his screenwriting and so when he decided to adapt a memoir about a father who moves his family to the country where they work to re-open a struggling zoo it seemed a perfect match for his quirky senses. The end result is a rather lovely film that is anchored by a strong and honest performance by one of our most reliable movie stars. Matt Damon, no matter how weak the material, is someone who always elevates it to something higher than it probably deserves. While watching him in "We Bought A Zoo" you realize just how grounded and solid an actor he is. If anything, this film with a fun premise and cheesy tone is made into a viable emotional experience thanks to the skill of the man in front of the camera rather than the one behind the scenes.

Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) and Benjamin (Matt Damon)
take a walk through their zoo.
Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a single dad who recently lost his wife and is now raising his two children alone. Against his better judgement of his brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church in a small but fitting role) he moves his family to the country and buys a house that has a zoo in the backyard. His oldest child, Dylan, is in a 14-year old state of rebellion after the loss of his mother and is acting out in school. Sweet Rosie is only trying to help her dad get by as best he can while remembering her mother in the most mature of ways. As Rosie, Maggie Elizabeth Jones is the cutest child actor to come along in a while that actually has the charisma to go along with her cuteness. Her young enthusiasm translates to the screen everytime the camera finds her face and infuses the film and Damon's character with a sense of optimistic hope. I have not read the book on which this is based, but as far as the story goes Crowe was right to make Benjamin more dedicated to his children rather than his pursuit of a co-worker. That the film restrains from following through with that promise of a relationship between Benjamin and his zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) is a good sign of discipline and avoidance of family film cliches. At points this story could sound like the premise of a made for TV Lifetime movie, but that storytelling discipline and ability to manage the intertwining stories of Benjamin, each of his children's personal journeys as well as the all encompassing driving plot of being USDA approved by a funnily ridiculous John Michael Higgins so they can actually open their zoo is handled with sweet care and attention by Damon and his co-stars.

Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) enjoys the company of her
new friends that populate her new house.
The most important thing was that this story came off genuine and the people taking part in it even more so. In that regard the film is a success.As Dylan, Colin Ford creates our most engaging storyline as he is looking for an escape in the way of his art or in his friends. He, like his father, is searching for ways to leave behind the woman they loved so much. Their ideas of achieving this kind of freedom though are radically different. The move to the zoo is, for Benjamin, a way to escape everything that reminds him of he and all his wife shared. It is also something his little Rosie loves and wants more than anything. He is doing it for himself, to take his mind elsewhere, to go on a real adventure, but he is honest in believing it will help his kids as well. Dylan on the other hand has distraction taking another incarnation. That of his friends that surrounded him at school. It is with a note of despair that he has no choice but to follow his family to their new residence. It is not as if there isn't intrigue there for the young artist though. Coming off a great performance in this summer's "Super 8" Elle Fanning shows up here as Kelly's niece Lily, a home schooled teen around Dylan's age that works at the zoo's cafe. There is an immediate intrigue there for Lily who doesn't get to hang out with many kids her age. Never mind the fact she has settled out in the country of Southern California while Dylan and his family come from the city. Their relationship while feeling juvenile and ignorant does the almost impossible job of seeming sweet and honest without feeling forced or ridiculous. It is indeed this relationship we'd rather see flourish than the one between the two big movie stars.It is due to the perfect levels of innocence and sincerity the two young actors bring to their roles.

Ben and Dylan (Colin Ford) don't always see eye to eye,
but they still love one another.
There isn't a lot to analyze about "We Bought A Zoo". It is a simple, sweet film that means no harm and has the best of intentions. It is a heartwarming movie that shows the hard process of starting over and adjusting to life without a part of it that was once so constant. It is a tough road to travel and could have certainly been handled in ways that made it out to be more of a melodrama than the version Crowe and his team have delivered. I may not be the biggest Crowe loyalist, but can certainly appreciate an effort that aims to give an unfortunate situation a bright side to look forward to. The bottom line being though that I really enjoyed the film and was touched by Damon and his co-stars performances. I can't really say much for Johansson, she is here and does fine at playing a character that gets no real attention, but she doesn't stand out and there is no reason to fuss about something that doesn't even require any attention. In many ways it was right for her to not try and take the spotlight. Her character is a supporting role and the focus of the feature should be on the family and its coming together and it thankfully is and stays there the entire running time. There are a few slow spots sprinkled throughout but as I said earlier, thanks to Damon, we are invested in this man trying to make life something special again for him and his children. It is almost too sweet, but is wrapped with just the right flavoring to leave a great taste long after seeing the film.