The humans are the attraction
More than 20 years into his career as a Hollywood writer-director, we know that Cameron Crowe has thus far proven incapable of making a bad movie. Of the seven feature films he’s directed, beginning with 1989’s “Say Anything” up through his latest, “We Bought a Zoo,” Crowe has proven adept at using sharp writing and quirky characters to weave heartfelt stories that appeal both to the young and the young at heart.
Unfortunately for Crowe, his best films, “Say Anything,” “Jerry Maguire,” and especially “Almost Famous” are so good that we want him to hit those heights every time he gets behind the camera. “We Bought a Zoo” doesn’t achieve the greatness of those films, but thanks to Crowe’s steady hand and a talented, likeable cast, it is an appealing and family-friendly confection.
Based on the true story of a California family, Matt Damon is Benjamin Mee, recently widowed father of troubled teen Dylan (Colin Ford) and the cute-as-a-button-and-she-knows-it Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), who’s seven years old and often the smartest person in the room. When he realizes his family needs a change of scenery six months after his wife dies, Benjamin buys a dilapidated farmhouse on an 18-acre plot that happens to include a zoo. Yes, there are lions and tigers and bear (just one) on the property, along with countless snakes, birds, turtles, and scads of other creatures. And there’s the wrinkle: Per state mandate, the animals must be included in the property’s purchase.
Benjamin quits his job as a journalist and decides to try to make a go of it as a zoo proprietor. Naturally, the teenage boy hates the idea as much as daddy’s girl loves it. The story wouldn’t be complete without a zoo staff that includes Scarlett Johansson, Patrick Fugit, Elle Fanning, and Patrick Macfadyen. There’s also Benjamin’s skeptical brother Duncan, played just like you’d expect him to be by Thomas Hayden Church. Together they pull the place together and get the zoo ready just in time for the grand re-opening.
At the end of the day, the film is lifted by the always reliable and relatable Damon, and Johansson is appealing in a role that doesn’t demand much more of her than that. No, it isn’t perfect. Haven’t we had enough of little children who talk like well-spoken college grads? And yes, the script (by Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna) is at turns manipulative and overtly sentimental.
But “We Bought a Zoo” is above all a crowd-pleaser, and a welcome respite from the cynical fare regularly marketed toward families these days. Written by Michael Bennett