REVIEW: We Bought a Zoo
I’ll tell you right up front that I had a stronger emotional reaction to the film than most audience members, largely because of the theme of loss that permeates most of the story. As a result, I found myself loving the We Bought a Zoo and have been recommending it to families ever since. Now that it is out on DVD from 20th Century Home Entertainment, I’m here to recommend it as a purchase as well.
Since we’re all about to fall in love with Scarlet Johansson all over again when she kicks ass in The Avengers, it’s good to see her actually acting here, paired nicely with Matt Damon, the grieving patriarch who needs to change his life in some way and chooses to do so in a rather radical fashion.
Based on a real family – The Mees, of the Dartmoor Zoological Park in Devon, England — the movie was written and directed by Cameron Crowe, who never ceases to make his characters nothing less than interesting to watch. It’s not his strongest film but it marks his return to the screen after the misfire of Elizabethtown and it’s a most welcome one. Yes, it schmaltzy and you know what’s going to happen in the end, but getting there is eminently watchable and worth your time.
Benjamin Mee (Damon) has recently lost his wife and seems to be in danger of losing his relationship with son Dylan (Colin Ford) as both grieve in vastly different ways. He’s floundering at work, a columnist who sees the inevitable cutbacks coming his way. Dylan has been expelled for a series of antics and younger daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) is just sad. Something has to be done and seemingly without considering the consequences, he decides to relocate the family to the country and start over. As he house hunts, the realtor (J.B. Smoove) shows him the dilapidated, condemned zoo that has a skeletal staff and a handful of animals in need of attention.
Of course, Mee falls in love with the romantic notion of starting over and rescuing not only the animals, but the family. He buys the property, introduces himself to the staff and begins learning what it means to run a zoo. The odd assortment of employees gives the film some nice color, led by Angus MacFadyen and anchored by Scarlet Johansson, who hasn’t had a real life in months. Confounding Mee is his caustic but loving brother (Thomas Hayden Church) and inspector Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins), who is a stereotypical prick. The money runs low, a miracle from Heaven seems to be a message of support and of course the zoo opens after plenty of adversity. There’s also another moment of loss as one of the animals ails and needs to be put down, a decision Mee has difficulty so soon after losing his wife.
Bit by bit, we watch the family heal and reform with a new dynamic. While Rosie remains adorable and indefatigable, Dylan broods for a while, even rejecting a chance at romance with Elle Fanning, who smiles way too goofily throughout the film. There’s also a budding romance between Damon and Johansson but it’s far from the main point of the film.
As usual, Crowe stuffs his film with an appropriately selected assortment of songs (Pearl Jam, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bon Iver, Tom Petty) plus a score from “Jónsi” Birgisson so everything feels nicely assembled. Perhaps too nice. There’s predictability to the film that feels manipulative which is unusual for Crowe. Nothing surprises you and it feels overly pat, which robs the film of its strengths. Still, it’s a fine film for the family to watch and enjoy.
The DVD looks fine and comes with Crow, Smoove and editor Mark Livolsi providing an interesting commentary track. Smoove’s offbeat comments certainly liven up the traditional making of moments. There’s also “It’s a Zoo” a short featurette about the animals used in the film, but it’s culled from the longer “We Shot a Zoo” which is found on the Blu-ray.