Following Cameron Crowe’s early career as a musical journalist for Rolling Stone, chronicled in the semi-autobiographical Almost Famous, Crowe defined the post baby-boomer generation with Fast Times at Ridgemont High, before doing it all again for the grunge crowd a decade later with Singles. After massive commercial and critical success with Jerry Maguire, his next few films struggled to match up with his previously strong voice, culminating in the critical misfire Elizabethtown. Absent from feature narratives for six years, appearing only with music documentaries The Union and Pearl Jam Twenty, We Bought a Zoo breaks the drought.
Based on a memoir by Benjamin Mee (played by Matt Damon), the mildly depressed “adventure” journalist father struggles to hold his life together with his two children Dylan (Colin Ford) and Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) following the death of his wife. Against the advice of his accountant brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), Benjamin buys a new house that turns out to be a run-down zoo, still home to over 200 endangered animals who will lose more than their homes if the zoo is closed. Benjamin must not only work with a reluctant collaborator in zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) but satisfy a feared auditor (John Michael Higgins) in order to get the zoo running again.
We Bought A Zoo has the kind of narrative that could very easily slide into sentimentality – so it does. Moving the Dartmoor Zoological Park from the English countryside to the US, and conveniently ignoring the dubious living conditions that the zoo was charged with prior to Mee’s purchase of the zoo, Crowe’s film comes to us from screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna, most recently of Morning Glory and I Don’t Know How She Does It. While this film follows familiar conventions, it also embraces being sappy thanks to Crowe’s experience with the warm and fuzzier side of human relationships. There is a Say Anything… moment involving young zoo worker Lily (Elle Fanning) and Duncan, standing outside in the rain, asking a girl to love him. While it feels awkward in and of itself at times, especially a moment when Duncan screams “You never taught me to shave!” at his father, Crowe allows the material room to feel as thought it is all part of an organic process. At other times he rams it down our throats as though it were zoological medicine, but the net effect is a feel-good one.
The film is about dealing with grief, and the introduction of a plethora of animals to train never seems at odds with this, and it is difficult to not feel at least something when there are lions, and tiger and bears…oh my! Benjamin learning to talk to and deal with animals runs parallel with learning to talk to his own family, and the trio work well together on screen. Johansson, who is normally trotted out to say little and look sexy (and for good reason on both counts), is asked to bring more loving qualities to this role, and mostly handles the material. However, she struggles to keep up with some of the more experienced cast members around her, and the young Fanning has to become a complete precocious Crowe-esque goofball just to not outshine Johansson at every turn. Damon, in his fifth role of 2011, quietly holds it together, bringing a confidence to the fatherly role that comes with his own growth as an actor. Only John Michael Higgins’ unique inspector character feels at odds with the rest of the film.
We Bought A Zoo is neither groundbreaker nor edgy, and despite the soundtrack from Jónsi (of Sigur Rós fame), peppered with My Morning Jacket and Wilco, this is very much the voice of an ageing Cameron Crowe. This is not the first time Crowe has felt so creaky, with Elizabethtown requiring mandatory sick bags, but it is difficult to not feel at least feel a little moved by Benjamin Mee’s story. Unabashedly manipulative, it isn’t coupled with the cynicism that would typically follow such an approach, with Crowe infusing the film with a genuine warmth that makes it the cinematic equivalent of curling up on the couch with a nice hot cup of tea.
We Bought A Zoo is released in Australia on 26 December 2011 from Fox.