Review: We Bought A Zoo (2011)

By Andre Rivas


We Bought a Zoo is about an adventurer good at taking his brother’s advice. This advice landed him the woman of his dreams, interviews with dangerous men, in a suit surrounded by killer bees and airplanes shaking with turbulence through the eye of a storm. Somewhere along the way, this adventurer loses his compass, his wife. And this film is about finding his own way out of the metaphorical jungle, regaining the trust of those who love him and letting go – lovingly – that loss.

Like his protagonist, Cameron Crowe is an adventurer too, braving violent, stormy seas powered by cynicism with unabashed optimism and humanity. He is as much of a risk taker as, say, Park Chan-wook, another of my favorite filmmakers, who often focuses on the darkness in men and women to tell wildly interesting tales of violence. Crowe focuses on the light. When he has proper command of his material, he is a brave, even great filmmaker. He stands out from his peers the way Capra stood out. But many critics have accused him of losing a compass of his own – all over one lousy movie. Elizabethtown was a failure and it failed on many levels. It felt forced, manipulative. The lead, Orlando Bloom, seemed like he was playing a Cameron Crowe archetype than an actual flesh and blood character. It’s a shame it didn’t all work because it’s a failure I happen to enjoy as it features some of the filmmaker’s strongest moments as a writer and director.

I suspect I will not be the only critic, however, who sat in their seat rooting for Mr. Crowe to bounce back, six years after his last feature film (the solid rock documentary Pearl Jam Twenty notwithstanding). The question everyone wants answered more than anything else is, “Is Cameron Crowe back?”

Not exactly. Not the Cameron Crowe who made Say Anything or Jerry Maguire or Almost Famous. But it is undeniably a Cameron Crowe film and it works in a way Elizabethtown never quite manages to. There are some miscues and awkward misfires tonally at times (mostly in the film’s first 45 minutes), and I found myself conflicted midway through on whether or not it was all working. In the end, however, We Bought a Zoo really does work, sometimes despite itself and much of the credit is due to both Crowe’s alluring sense of optimism and the terrific, steady performance by Matt Damon, who has at least three really great moments as an actor here. This is a rock solid family drama that is more nourishing than your standard and it deserves to be a decent-sized hit when it’s released in late December.

A plot synopsis here should be brief since the plot is essentially in the title, one the filmmakers stuck with when adapting Benjamin Mee’s book. After the death of his wife, a man moves his family to the countryside to live in a struggling zoo. Much of the film focuses on Damon’s character, Hollywood’s version of Benjamin Mee, trying to fix up the zoo before a scheduled inspection. Benjamin has a lot invested here in what becomes both a spiritual and financial struggle. The family crisis that led to the move from the city takes a backseat to the daily crises that pop up at the zoo because it has to, because Benjamin knows of no other way to fix things than to fix other things. When Benjamin first visits the home, he knows it feels right, he knows this is the place but he’s reluctant to embark on this particular adventure. Maybe it would feel right if his wife was still alive. Maybe it feels right because she isn’t around anymore and that bothers him. One look at his daughter feeding some peacocks, however, and Benjamin is stopped dead in his tracks. He can think of a million different reasons why not to invest in this zoo, but it’s all trumped by his daughter’s happiness in a flash of a moment. This is sort of the experience of watching this movie. It’s so dreamy and heartfelt, at times so clunky and haphazard, it’s easy – and natural I’d argue – to question whether or not to give in. Crowe is good at helping you along, giving in.

There is certainly something selfish over this stunt he pulls, uprooting his family into something so foreign, hoping all their troubles will go away. And I love that in an argument late in the film with his son Crowe doesn’t shy away from that selfishness or Benjamin’s blindness. There are no singular heroes here, just a family man trying to do his best.

As for the rest of the cast, Elle Fanning (having a nice year in 2011), Colin Ford and Thomas Haden Church provide nice support and each actor has their moment in the sun. As young Rosie, Maggie Elizabeth Jones will steal some hearts and tickle more than few bellybuttons (she has a line late in the film that drew the biggest laugh from the audience). Finally, I was grateful Scarlett Johansson’s Kelly Foster was not a retread of the Penny Lane/Claire Colburn flawed Wonder Girl club. She is neither broken or in need of a tune-up. She is exactly as advertised: a hardworking zookeeper who is more interested in sleeping when she isn’t caring for the animals, with little time for cutesy romantic banter. Johansson is pretty good here, less mannered than usual.

Crowe’s return to form is not absolute, but it’s a welcomed surprise this holiday season. Early marketing efforts by the studio left me cold and quite nervous (and I was happy to see at least one scene from the film’s trailer not make it in the final cut). It’s no secret Crowe makes candy-flavored confections, but the first trailer released looked saccharine to the point of nausea. I’m happy to report that while We Bought a Zoo isn’t vintage Crowe, and though it is certainly emotional and honeyed, it’s an above-average family film that earns most of the tears it will likely produce.

68/100 – We Bought a Zoo isn’t vintage Crowe, and though it is certainly emotional and honeyed, it’s an above-average family film that earns most of the tears it will likely produce.

North Carolina Film Critic. A writer and video editor, I began my career writing pieces for RopeofSilicon.com and am currently a regular contributor to Film.com. I believe films can be great sources of entertainment but I also love that it's an art form that moves us to not only share stories, but also share ideas through pictures, music and words. I'm thrilled to be part of the Next Projection team, providing my thoughts on films both classic and contemporary.