Movie Review: We Bought a Zoo
There’s just something about the world of Cameron Crowe that seems so enticing. Maybe it’s the soundtrack, maybe it’s how there seems to be one special ‘muse’ for every loser/failure, or maybe it could be how everyone seems to have their own philosophies on life. Either way, Crowe’s latest film taps into a well of familiarity that feels incredibly comfortable.
It’s been a rough decade for Crowe. His dream film Almost Famous netted him many accolades (and a Best Screenplay Oscar), but his follow-ups were met with lukewarm receptions. Vanilla Sky (his adaptation of the Spanish film Open Your Eyes) was mildly praised, but his 2005 release Elizabethtown received a smattering of negative reactions. While some like Roger Ebert (one of Crowe’s biggest fans since the film Say Anything) praised it, many weren’t at all willing to accept his family/failure roadtrip film.
With We Bought A Zoo, Crowe takes another direction from the ‘family/failure’ playbook. After the death of his wife, Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is unsure just what to do. His current job as a reporter with the Los Angeles Times seems to be bearing little fruit, and he is unsure what to do in regards to his family. While his young daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) seems to be handling herself okay, his son Dylan (Colin Ford) has been having issues with school and life, as evidenced by some rather violent artwork and suspension from school.
Feeling that he and his family need a clean slate to start over, Benjamin quits his job, and decides to go house-hunting. With encouragement from Rosie, Benjamin purchases a house in the country, that also comes with a zoo. Also there to lend a hand are a group of loyal persons that have maintained the zoo and want to continue to do so. These include the taxed-but-dedicated Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), her carefree cousin Lily (Elle Fanning), Scottish groundskeeper Peter (Angus Macfadyen), and many more.
After his turn recently as Jason Bourne, seeing Damon in a father-figure role may seem a little odd. His role as Mr B Mee (“be me,” get it?) is a rather fine balancing act, showing a man trying to keep his cool amid a tumultuous situation regarding the addition of a zoo to his lifestyle.
Crowe usually adds a mentor or confidante for his lead actors, and Thomas Hayden Church plays the part as Ben’s brother, Duncan. Church plays his role as a voice of reason, but also as a man who doesn’t have a spotless past track record of success. However, he does provide several fun moments.
Ben’s children are also an interesting group. Rosie is almost like the female counterpart of little Ray “the human head weighs eight pounds” Boyd in Jerry Maguire. Every other scene with her will most likely melt the audiences’ heart, but it almost works as a counterpoint to scenes regarding Dylan. The development of Dylan feels like the area where the film falls flat. I could kind of get behind him withdrawing in the wake of his Mother’s death, but the rest of his role was a bit rocky. Even the added country-girl crush that Lily has on him felt a bit too convenient.
That could be one of the biggest issues regarding the film: several scenes feel a little “too convenient.” There’s one such scene that comes along at just the right moment, and I did find my eyebrow cocked at how it worked out.
The film also marks a new first for Cameron Crowe. From 1996-2005, his former wife Nancy Wilson (formerly of the group Heart) provided the instrumental scoring for his films. After their recent divorce, many wondered what would happen to this component of his films. For Zoo, Crowe chose Icelandic musician Jónsi. Jónsi’s original score can’t compare to the often guitar-oriented instrumentals from Wilson, but he proves to be a man of mood music. Such score music in Crowe’s films should act like a comforting hand regarding big and small scenes, and this is definitely what we have here.
For those who disliked Elizabethtown, We Bought A Zoo will seem a more palatable return to the world of Cameron Crowe. However, it is far from his best work. It’s a feel-good film that definitely feels right at home in a crowded Christmas Season of high-profile films.