“We Bought a Zoo” is the heartwarming story of a father and his two children, who are struggling with the death of their wife/mother. When the boy is expelled from school, the father knows that they need to move, in order to get a fresh start.
The dream home they come across, however, has a unique set of challenges.
It’s a zoo.
In an act of impulse/courage/stupidity/serendipity, the father (played by Matt Damon) decides the place is exactly what they need and makes the purchase, in spite of the fact they know nothing about running a zoo, and the fact that the zoo is in a state of disrepair.
To steal one of Damon’s own lines, “Let the healing begin!”
“We Bought a Zoo” is Cameron Crowe’s first directorial effort since 2005’s “Elizabethtown”. Crowe, of course, has a string of classics under his belt, including “Say Anything”, “Jerry Maguire”, “Singles” and “Almost Famous”. He also wrote each of those films, along with the 1980s comedy classic, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”. He adapted this movie from the 2009 memoir by Benjamin Mee entitled “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”
I mean, that title pretty much says it all doesn’t it?
That’s ok, I don’t think there’s such a thing as a “spoiler” in regards to this movie. Damon is a stand up guy who desperately wants to do the right thing by his kids, if only he could figure out exactly what that is. The little girl is adorable. The animals are a handful, but the family somehow manages. There’s a pretty female character about the same age as each of the two main male characters, so you know there will be a little romance sprinkled in. There will be shots of sunlight shining through trees and lots of animal montages interspersed with smiling humans, all set to sentimental classic rock. Only songs twenty years old or older need apply.
The “conflict” in the movie comes from multiple sources. The Zoo needs fixing, the animals have issues, the family is stretching their finances, the father and son are having trouble relating to each other, and Damon’s character is still really hurting over his deceased wife.
If there’s an issue I had with this movie it’s that its an extraordinarily safe movie. You just know that this isn’t the movie, say, where there’s a shocker car accident that kills someone, and as “troubled” as the teen is, there isn’t going to be a suicide scene or anything. Not that any of that would make the movie a better movie or anything, but the movie is utterly free of anything even remotely edgy. It’s a movie that waits for the crosswalk signal to turn in its favor before crossing an empty street. For example, I put the fact that the teen is troubled in quotes a couple of sentences back because while I was watching, the thought occurred to me that this kid is “troubled” in a way that 99% of parents of REAL troubled teens would kill for. I could imagine my own mom, for example, watching this when I was 14, thinking, “Oh God, if only…” LOL He’s like troubled lite.
No one will win any acting awards, I wouldn’t say, but they all do fine jobs. Damon does a great “Everyman”, and Scarlett Jo is solid as the determined zookeeper. The little girl does a great job as the requisite “cute kid”, and in a good sign foe Elle Fanning, I can easily see a difference between the character she was playing here and the girl she played in “Super 8”. Acting! There’s also a couple of funny supporting characters who provide some of the comedy; Thomas Haden Church as Damon’s naysaying brother, and John Michael Higgins as the super-stickler licensing official.
So it’s safe, and it’s predictable, but it’s not boring. It’s fun and its sweet and it’ll make you laugh at the right times. To his credit, Crowe keeps the syrup to a minimum. In the end you wind up with a movie that’s funny in spots, cute in others, and heartwarming throughout. Say what you will about Crowe, but he has a knack for making a “sweet” movie.