There’s a scene in We Bought a Zoo in which owner Benjamin Mee (played by Matt Damon) is surrounded by his staff at the entrance of Rosemoor Animal Park, and someone utters, “It’s a zoo.” The retort? “Yes, it is.” That’s precisely the level of enthusiasm I’m capable of mustering for director Cameron Crowe’s latest.
We Bought a Zoo is a movie. Yes, it is.
Specifically, it’s a movie based on a true story — that of Mee, whose memoir chronicles his family’s purchase of Dartmoor Zoological Park in England — that rings so saccharin you have to wonder how much, aside from the film’s location (Southern California) and the zoo’s name, has been Hollywood-ized for effect. I haven’t read Mee’s tale, so I can’t attest, but I’ll say this: You’re never all that concerned about the characters or the ultimate outcome of We Bought a Zoo, thanks to a generous peppering of plucky, unearned one-liners and a predictable slew of miraculously resilient situations of peril.
Mee is a recently widowed father of 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford, a dead-ringer for Damon) and 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie-Elizabeth Jones, reminiscent of a less emotionally substantial Drew Barrymore in E.T.) who abandons his job as an adventure-seeking journalist to relocates his family to an 18-acre property — much to the chagrin of his sarcastic brother Duncan, played by Thomas Haden Church — that just happens to house 47 different animal species, and the crew of keepers that cares for them. Most notably: head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), her young cousin Lily (Elle Fanning), fiery-tempered enclosure designer Peter MacCready (Angus MacFadyen) and Robin Jones (a jarringly grown-up Patrick Fugit, star of Almost Famous, who spends the entirety of the movie with a monkey on his shoulder, which I consider a metaphor for the ghost of far superior Crowe movies of yore).
Things more or less pan out like this: Benjamin is a serial optimist grappling with his rebellious and withdrawn son as well as mounting bills to have the property in shape for inspection. Johansson stands by him, despite growing uncertainty among her coworkers; she also manages to diagnose all of his parenting and grief issues after knowing him for precious little time. There’s a groan-inducingly metaphorical subplot about Benjamin’s relationship with a sick 17-year-old tiger named Spar, and Lily’s attempts to pull Dylan out of his shell in typical coming-of-age fashion. Meanwhile, Church’s Duncan is just a watered-down version of his Sideways character. Also: I’m pretty sure every character utters, “We Bought a Zoo!” with spirited resolve at least once.
To the cast’s credit, everyone turns in the exact performance that’s asked of them. Co-screenwriter (with Crowe) Aline Brosh McKenna’s recent resume (27 Dresses, Morning Glory, I Don’t Know How She Does It) sufficiently speaks to Zoo‘s issues. These are movies about realistic people — a frustrated bridesmaid, a career woman, a mother — that lack beating hearts. Even the ugly sides of their characters are painfully polished, the dialogue is hollow and the uplifting end result just feels pandering. And Zoo is no exception. With an assault of lines like, “Catch her spirit, put it in your heart, hold it there,” “If only I could talk to her about getting over her” and “Sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage, and I promise you something great will come of it,” it becomes an exercise in madness to recall that this movie was also co-written by the man who came up with, “I gave her my heart, she gave me a pen” and “You had me at hello.”
It makes me sad, to be honest. I’m on Crowe’s side: His previous films have, for the most part, hit the sweet, happy medium of provoking head and heart. I truly hope We Bought a Zoo, which feels more like an excuse to soundtrack images of wild animals to various indie-rock staples, sacrifice character development for quippy dialogue and evoke tears with flashbacks set to Sigur Ros, is just a momentary blip in his otherwise well-tuned radar for heartfelt, engaging human stories.
We Bought a Zoo opens today nationwide.
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