While We Bought a Zoo isn’t going to be the type of critically-lauded character drama that put Crowe on the map, the film is still likely to offer moviegoers a heartening trip to the theater.
Writer/director Cameron Crowe has helmed a number of iconic and critically acclaimed films – including Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, and Vanilla Sky. However, the celebrated filmmaker hit a wall when his 2005 drama, Elizabethtown was poorly received and underperformed at the box office.
As a result, film fans have been eagerly anticipating Crowe’s follow-up feature project, We Bought a Zoo – an adaptation of writer Benjamin Mee’s memoir, We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo, and the 200 Wild Animals That Changed Their Lives Forever. The rich source material, coupled with Crowe’s character-focused storytelling approach, were certainly indicators that We Bought a Zoo could offer another thoughtful and compelling movie from the esteemed director. That said, anyone familiar the book, will recognize that adapting Mee’s story would be a complicated endeavor – given the bizarre premise, myriad of side players, and challenging core story arcs.
Some film fans may have already been exposed to Benjamin Mee in the BBC documentary, Ben’s Zoo – which aired as a four-part series in 2007 and chronicled the remodeling of the Dartmoor Zoological Park in England (changed to the Rosemoor Wildlife Park in California for the film project). While the true-life story has its share of drama, Crowe’s adaptation streamlines the narrative by setting the death of Mee’s wife, Katherine, long before the family ever arrives at the zoo (in the real life memoir Katherine died only three months before the reopening of the Dartmoor Zoological Park).
The proceeding events chronicle the attempts of the Mee family members, father Benjamin (Matt Damon), son Dylan (Colin Ford), and daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), as they move beyond their tragic loss. After Dylan is expelled from school, Benjamin attempts to provide his family with a clean break – by purchasing a dilapidated zoo in the interest of offering his children a game-changing adventure. At the Rosemoor Wildlife Park, the family is introduced to a team of quirky staff members led by head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson). Together, in spite of mounting debts and personal tension, the group works to prepare the zoo for a grand reopening – and, in the case of the Mees, finally let go of Katherine.
With plenty of story drama at his disposal, Crowe succeeds in capturing some intriguing character moments and, as a result, We Bought a Zoo offers a number of solid, albeit not exactly award-worthy, performances. Damon balances the likable personality of Benjamin with some challenging emotional beats as he faces off with family members, an unruly staff, as well as painful memories. Similarly, Johansson delivers another sound performance – but, unfortunately, isn’t given a lot of room to either develop her character or seamlessly work Kelly into the over-arching Mee story. As a result, Kelly’s arc is a misfire in the film – and, despite being an intriguing character in her own right, ultimately muddles some of Benjamin’s motivations and potential character development.
Despite offering compelling drama individually, the balance between these “letting go of Katherine” arcs and the moment-to-moment Rosemoor Wildlife Park story lines never come together in a truly cohesive blend – and instead the onscreen drama plays out like intertwined threads that, once in awhile, affect one another. None of the zoo-centric characters talk to the Mees about Katherine – only watch from afar as Benjamin acts out and lets his (obvious to everyone) pain affect decisions at the park. Example: after a disagreement with Kelly, Benjamin disappears entirely, leaving his children alone at the house, until Kelly inexplicably shows-up, orders a pizza, and puts the kids to bed. When Benjamin finally arrives home, the pair exchange “profound” and expository dialogue – without really addressing any of the feelings that Mee is experiencing. There’s little doubt that audiences will be invested moment-to-moment but reflecting on a lot of the key scenes, it’s clear that We Bought a Zoo isn’t just filled with missed opportunities for compelling drama – it actively avoids tough conversations (and interactions).
The division wouldn’t be so noticeable if the movie wasn’t already over-long. Crowe manages to keep things moving and galvanizes the plot with a few all-too-convenient solutions to problems but, as the film wrestles between competing narrative focuses, a lot of key characters either get left in the dust or aren’t successfully resolved. Even the Katherine storyline is overdrawn – and gets revisited one too many times (after an already satisfying resolution).
That said, even though We Bought a Zoo is over-stuffed and doesn’t always make good on story elements and characters that it seems to be setting up, there’s still plenty to enjoy in the film. Crowe successfully captures the magic and wonder of the Rosemoor Wildlife Park and its animal inhabitants. Simply watching the interactions between humans and the wildlife offers a number of captivating and genuinely charming moments – especially whenever carpenter, Peter MacCready (Angus Macfadyen) is involved.
While We Bought a Zoo isn’t going to be the type of critically-lauded character drama that put Crowe on the map, the film is still likely to offer moviegoers a heartening trip to the theater. A muddled focus keeps the movie from being a guaranteed hit with kids or a captivating adult drama – but, for moviegoers who are merely interested in an enjoyable middle-ground film, there are enough compelling moments in We Bought a Zoo to make it worth a look.
If you’re still on the fence about We Bought a Zoo, check out the trailer below:
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We Bought a Zoo is now in theaters.