Pap, but easygoing pap with a cast you can live with for a couple of hours, We Bought a Zoo is co-writer and director Cameron Crowe’s adaptation of a memoir by Benjamin Mee entitled We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo, and the 200 Wild Animals That Change Their Lives Forever.
Fans of Crowe’s Jerry Maguire (his best to date) and Almost Famous aren’t the natural primary audience for this family-friendly product. But I survived it, and even enjoyed parts of it, which is more than I can say for Crowe’s Elizabethtown, a romantic comedy so smug it actually stopped my heart from beating for a few seconds and therefore technically killed me.
Honest and true in every on-screen impulse, Matt Damon plays Mee, who in this fictionalized version of the real story is a withdrawn widower with two children. (Mee’s real-life wife died three months after the purchase of the zoo.) Benjamin quits his job at the L.A. Times and, searching for a fresh start for his sweet-natured preteen daughter, played by Maggie Elizabeth Jones, along with the grieving teenaged son played by Colin Ford, he finds exactly what he wasn’t looking for: 18 acres plus a zoological park on the skids, whose workers are looking to reopen if the place passes inspection.
Scarlett Johansson plays the head zookeeper, conveniently single and available. Thomas Haden Church, the strongest source of wit and personality in the film, sets his line readings to “extra dry” as Mee’s older brother, who in a typical Crowe bit of overweening dialogue, reminds Benjamin that “human interaction is a good thing” as is “sunlight” and “joy.” Bring it on!
What happens in We Bought a Zoo? Snakes sneak out of their cages. A grizzly gets out, too. But this is no nightmare. Family bonds are strengthened. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto makes every exterior and interior as luscious as can be, even when somebody has to go buy something at a Home Depot.
Damon, thank the family-friendly-movie gods, really knows how to hold his head above the corn. Rarely can you ever point to a moment in this actor’s recent screen career when he oversells an interaction with a co-star. It’s a fine impulse, this sort of relaxed touch. By contrast, some of the reaction shots of the daughter, beaming, made me think idly vicious thoughts about those snakes and grizzlies. But the young actress cannot be faulted. She did not, after all, edit the picture.
—MCT, Tribune Media Service Respond: firstname.lastname@example.org