His beloved wife died six months ago, leaving Benjamin Mee alone with a moody teenage son, a relentlessly cute daughter, a big lump in his heavy heart, and a concerned brother who tells him: "You gotta' let a little sunshine in." Oh, not to worry. By the time We Bought a Zoo meanders to an end, a couple of hours later, there's enough sunshine to induce sunstroke. So pack your dark glasses and slather on the lotion – it's a glaringly sentimental journey.
The saving grace is that, amid the treacle, there are a few pockets of surprising honesty, but more about that later. Instead, let's open with director Cameron Crowe who, not having made a dramatic feature since his 2005 stinker Elizabethtown, seems bound and determined to crank out a crowd-pleaser here.
The source is a memoir by Mee himself, a Brit, although the setting has been Americanized and so has the widower – meet Matt Damon. In his hands, Benjamin quickly emerges as a thoroughly decent fellow, despite his journalistic vocation. We know that because, when his editor/boss speaks these ominous words, "I'm giving you an online column," our good man does the only decent thing – he quits.
Needing to escape the city along with its sad memories, Benjamin searches the country for an abode and spots a house with ample attached acreage. His conclusion: "It's perfect." The catch: "It's a zoo." Yep, that's a doozy of a backyard, crawling with lions and tigers and snakes and peacocks and monkeys and Scarlett Johansson. She's Kelly the head zookeeper, all business at first but expect business to change. The cute daughter loves the peacocks but the moody son hates everything, except maybe Kelly's teenage niece (Elle Fanning) who, much like Kelly herself, is on hand mainly to provide amorous sparks and reassuring smiles.
"Why did you buy this place?", wonders the zookeeper. "Why not," replies Benjamin, yet, being astute moviegoers wise in the ways of uplifting family entertainment, we aren't fooled by that disingenuous reply. After all, the man has a grieving ticker that needs fixing, and who better for the job than a photogenic assortment of enclosed animals. From there, the complications ensue like a dutiful roll call: Snakes get loose, tigers get sick, government inspectors get nasty, and money gets thin. Of course, as they do, an old heart finds new purpose.
Now for the pleasant surprise. A professional actor in the best sense, always credibly grounded, Damon is much better than the material, and so is Colin Ford who plays the troubled son. Consequently, at least two of their scenes together possess a raw ring of truth, with an emotional pull that, unlike the contrived stuff all around it, feels genuine. It's like stumbling into a different and tighter movie, only to be ushered back to the sloppy one.
Even there, though, the odd moment is charming. For instance, early on in the city sequences, a noisy band of partying neighbours awakens the cute daughter, who exclaims, "Their happy is too loud." I love that line and, as a city-dweller myself, plan to use it at the earliest opportunity.
As for Crowe, whose successes with Almost Famous and Jerry Maguire are well in his past, you get the sense that, unlike Benjamin, he didn't stumble blindly into this job of work but carefully chose it in the fond hope that such a sweet confection would not only please the crowd but put his career on a sugar high. Hey, crowds can be fickle and sugar can be lethal, but good luck to him.
We Bought a Zoo
- Directed by Cameron Crowe
- Written by Cameron Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna
- Starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson
- Classification: PG
- 2.5 stars