It's hard to know what to make of We Bought a Zoo. Sometimes it's trying to be a cutesy family drama, sometimes a hard-hitting family drama, next it's trying to be an ensemble comedy, then it's trying to be a story about gumption and perseverance.
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You know what? Mostly, it works.
Sure, this isn't going to garner any Oscar nominations, (except for the amazing soundtrack/score by Sigur Rós front man Jónsi) but the performances from the leads, the script and the cinematography all combine under the direction of Almost Famous director Cameron Crowe to produce a thoroughly likeable little film which shamelessly tugs at the heartstrings.
The film, very loosely based on the 2008 book laboriously titled; 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, stars the perpetually reliable Matt Damon as Benjamin Mee.
Benjamin (not Ben, that's his father) is a well-respected journalist who is six months into the grief process after losing his wife to an unnamed ailment. He's taking care of his two kids, sullen 14-year-old Dylan (Colin Ford) and effervescent 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), but he's barely coping.
Everything in the city reminds him of his wife, so he never goes anywhere. He has a fridge full of lasagne given to him by all the caring single mothers at his children's schools yet can never seem to find the time to eat it while Rosie is stuck making her own lunches. After one strike too many at his school, Dylan ends up getting expelled.
Dylan's expulsion (and his artful but downright frightening sketches), provides the impetus for change (and the need to find a new school) and Benjamin starts out on the search for somewhere else to live.
His search ends when he finds a beautiful and spacious old house on a huge plot of land. There's just one problem. It's a zoo. A very run down zoo. If he wants the house and land, the state says he has to take over the zoo, including the attendant animals and staff.
Obviously, Rosie is overjoyed by Benjamin's decision to purchase the zoo, however Dylan and Benjamin's older brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church) are less enthused. Dylan is being sullen Dylan while accountant Duncan is concerned about Benjamin wasting all the money inherited from his father.
The staff at the zoo aren't particularly impressed with the new owner either. Head Zookeeper Kelly Foster (a very dressed down but lovely Scarlett Johansson) thinks Benjamin has dived into the deep end of the pool without learning even the basics of swimming and everyone else on staff seem quietly incredulous.
Their mission is to get the park up and running in time for the summer tourist season and also, come together as a family.
Dylan meets his match in 13-year-old Lily Miska (Elle Fanning). Lily works for her cousin Kelly in the zoo's restaurant and is paid in cash under the table. The home schooled teen is immediately smitten with Dylan. Her relentless friendliness and fascination with the brooding city boy help to bring him out of his shell.
The other romance between Damon and Johansson is almost as chaste as the two youngsters. Benjamin is still pining over the loss of his one true love (he still tearfully looks at snapshots of their relationship late at night) but finds Kelly attractive nonetheless. He wants to do something but is held back by his still raw grief.
Patrick Fugit, Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson in a scene from the film.
As in any family movie of this kind; there are challenges, both romantic and zoological; betrayal; redemption and an eventual happy ending.
The script, apart from the occasional dropping of an s-bomb in times of high emotion is pure family fare with good natured, quirky side characters and genuine emotional depth; including a couple of tear-jerking moments toward the end.
Damon and Johansson both play their parts perfectly well even if the two only really need to really act in one scene apiece. Maggie Elizabeth Jones is a scene stealer as the uber cute Rosie. She lights up the screen whenever she's in a scene.
The cinematography from Rodriego Prieto (DP for Brokeback Mountain) varies between utilitarian and beautiful and capturing the new light in which the family is coming to be illuminated.
Crowe's use of the sun in this film is interesting. Variously used to obscure and illuminate, it is a running visual theme throughout the film and seems to coincide with times of emotional resonance. Where Benjamin is trekking over the hills, the sun halos his head while in another scene it obscures the face of his wife in his memory.
Matt Damon's head is wreathed by the sun in an emotional moment.
We Bought a Zoo is a good film but it's far from a great film. The script is generally well put together but some of the side characters are little more than caricatures of archetypes. The fussy Department of Agriculture inspector, the Hagrid-like groundskeeper/handyman, the shrill and mutinous secretary are all there and all given just enough screen time so they can later play a small roll in driving the plot forward. Despite this, the main characters are all generally well drawn if nothing revelatory. Damon and Johansson aren't sleepwalking through the film but they are hardly challenged either.
Jónsi's soundtrack is wonderful and fittingly captures the spirit of rejuvenation coursing through the film.
If you want a good, inoffensive family film that is sure to pull on the heartstrings, you can certainly do worse than to check out We Bought a Zoo.