We Bought a Zoo is deeply felt, engaging, well acted, and that’s about it. It’s really good pizza without the crust. In other words, there’s not a lot of substance there, possibly because it tries to be and do so much.
How about a preview:
Released December 23, 2011
Written by Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe (Based on the book by Benjamin Mee)
Directed by Cameron Crowe
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Elle Fanning, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Matt Damon, Thomas Haden Church, Colin Ford, Patrick Fugit, John Michael Higgins, Carla Gallo, and lots of animals
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We Bought a Zoo is about how Benjamin Mee (Damon) and his children, Dylan (Ford) and Rosie (Jones), lose their wife/mother and can’t seem to move on, so they go looking for a way to start over and end up buying a zoo/animal park. Rosie’s dreams essentially come true early in the movie, since she gets to live in a zoo, so she spends the rest of the film adding some nice heart and kid-honesty to the experience.
Dylan is very resistant to the change and to pretty much any interaction with people. He is an artist who has taken to drawing very bleak, grim images as he tries to cope with the loss of his mother. He has also become distant and easily angered. He’s also a teenager, so.. there’s that.
These three become the new owners of Rosemoor Animal Park, with all the animals and what is left of the staff. The staff is headed by Kelly (Johansson) and is composed of the types of characters who would very likely work at a run-down zoo– they do it out of love of the animals. One of the staff is Lilly (Fanning), Kelly’s niece who is homeschooled. Interestingly, she plays an older character in We Bought a Zoo than she did in Super 8, but the character is emotionally much younger and she hits it out of the park.
What ensues are the plot twists that you would expect. Money is an issue. Will they pass the inspection and open on time? Will Benjamin give up? Will people show up on opening day? Will Benjamin and Kelly fall in love? Will Dylan and Lilly fall for each other? Will Dylan and Benjamin be able to repair their relationship?
It’s a Disney family film that is rated PG. What do you think the answers are?
The thing about We Bought a Zoo is that it’s a feel-good movie for all the right reasons. It’s got a family dealing with issues of emotional distance, loss, and grief. It’s got a spunky and cute little girl who represents the heart of the film. It’s got a fine actor in the lead role, a fine actress in the role of the possible love interest, real teenagers acting like real teenagers, and it’s also got animals and an underdog story.
How could it go wrong?
It doesn’t really. We Bought a Zoo is an entertaining film. It’s diverting and very enjoyable to watch. There’s genuine humor, often delivered with excellent timing and tone by Thomas Haden Church, and some real moments of human emotional gold.
Number one, you have some very good actors doing a very good job. Matt Damon, the professional underplayer of emotion, actually gets demonstrative in this movie, and the film really needed that from him. Scarlett Johansson plays the awkward-and-aware-of-it role of Kelly with heart and pretty good nuance. Colin Ford and Elle Fanning are the standouts, though, along with great comedic timing from Thomas Haden Church. Ford is excellent as the heartbroken, wrecked teen and Fanning nails the sweet, incredibly kind, very awkwardly forward homeschooled near-teen role of Lilly.
Number two, the relationship between Benjamin and Dylan, and this relationship’s evolution, unfolds very authentically, with excellent dialogue. This relationship, all things considered, is the emotional heart of the film.
Number three, the animals and their care are well dealt with. The realities of the undertaking of owning and running a zoo are nicely revealed.
The issue, really, is that there’s not a lot to We Bought a Zoo and we’ve seen things like it before. Mainly, we watch a very simple story line unfold, see conflicts arise, and find that those conflicts get solved without too much effort or struggle or challenge. That’s the main problem: the film throws conflict at the characters, but the characters only rarely have to dig deep to overcome the conflicts. So there’s not as much emotional punch as you would expect.
Why don’t the conflicts press the people too hard? Because there’s no time. There’s too much other story to tell, and the movie already goes on for over 2 hours. Two very pleasant hours, to be sure, but you have a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time. Honestly, Cameron Crowe might be getting a little verbose as he gets older. Almost Famous felt like concentrated rock angst and awkwardness. We Bought a Zoo felt like a long, enjoyable drink of pretty good lemonade.
Hey, at least the thirst for a feel-good movie was quenched.
Content warnings: Some teen-to-parent disrespect, some grim pictures drawn by Dylan, a surprising amount of mid-level swearing for a PG film.
Writing: 3.5 (take out a plot line) Acting: 4.5 Overall: 4
Don’t believe me? Whatever, man. Check out the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and you’ll see!
Hey, you’ve come this far. Go down another half inch and share this thing, wouldja?