Let’s get this out of the way now: I’m a Cameron Crowe fan. The director has his critics. Most of his divisiveness comes down to the tone of his films, which some find wrongfully cheesy. I, on the other hand, find Crowe’s humanism endearing, never silly or phony. Somehow, when everyone else has drunk the cynical Kool Aid and acts too cool for school towards anything with a big heart, the director remains optimistic about life and (ugh) people.
Crowe, who aims high to plant a big smile on your face, does so here more than competently. The surface-level concept of We Bought a Zoo is fairly ridiculous-sounding: Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) buys and decides to rebuild a broken-down zoo. I’m not sure how We Bought a Zoo differs from Dave Blank’s true life story, and while watching the film and even while writing about it at this very moment, I don’t care. The most important part of Crowe’s adaptation is that, every emotion felt genuine. The “getting the zoo back in shape!” serves as a metaphor for Mee attempting to rebuild his once happy family – heavy shit, right?
Alright, not a tremendously subtle idea, but this is a film that’s got its heart on its sleeve, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The basic human story and apparent drama all almost serves as back to basics film for Crowe. His past two efforts, the tremendous Vanilla Sky and the messy Elizabethtown, was the director at his most ambitious and splitting. The Orlando Bloom-starring film has its moments and says some genuine things about coming to terms with failure and loss, but, by the end, it felt like a four act structure trying to do too much. With Zoo, Crowe sticks to basic storytelling beats.
Even with the simplicity of it all, there’s some poignancy found. The biggest theme of Benjamin’s journey is expressed perfectly with the line, “All you need is 20 seconds of insane courage and I promise you something great will come of it,” and that type of honest humanism represents the overall appeal of Crowe. There’s something so relatable about going off on an impulse, no matter how stupid it may seem, and the results being grander than one would expect. Whether it’s Lloyd Dobler holding a boombox above his head playing, of all people, Peter Gabriel, or when Jerry Maguire classically posed the question, “Who’s coming with me?” these silly acts end up affecting their lives. They may not strike the characters or even the audience as game-changing acts, but they are.
It’s hard not to eat that stuff up, especially if one’s not in an unrelentingly cynical mood going into the theater, which, for the first time in a while, I was not. There’s plenty of recommendable films to see this Christmas - The Adventures of Tintin, War Horse, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and more – and We Bought a Zoo sits comfortably in that list of films. I cannot wait to see this with my family come the holidays, so we can all walk out feeling high on life for five minutes before we hurry back to lunging at each other’s throats.
The Upside: A well earned feel-great movie; Matt Damon is his usual reliable Damon-self; has believable kid actors; lovely score from Jónsi; Scarlett Johansson proves, when dealing with sound material, she can deliver the goods; while the supporting cast are footnotes, they all have a moment or two for themselves, especially Thomas Haden Church.
The Downside: An unneeded “will the weather stop the zoo from opening?” panic bit; a slight pacing issue from the previously mentioned downside issue; John Michael Higgins and Carla Gallo are tonally out of place.
On The Side: I was hoping to see Damon kill a zebra, and then wear its skin as a token of victory. Unfortunately, that scene never came.