Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson star in Cameron Crowe’s film about love lost, love found, and a depressed grizzly bear.
We Bought a Zoo loosely follows the story of Benjamin Mee, a British writer who bought a 30-acre zoo in Devon despite not having the money to make such a whimsical purchase, or any experience dealing with the welfare of wild animals.
Cameron Crowe’s film adaption of Mee’s novel of the same name sees the story lifted from the scenic south-west England countryside to the warmer climes of California, and a bald, grizzly-looking Mee transplanted with a wholesome, floppy-haired Matt Damon. Americans, eh?
Caged animals aside, the story is pretty much as clichéd as any Hollywood feel-good movie gets: a beloved wife and mother dies and the young family struggle to deal with the loss while getting involved in various scrapes and antics along the way. There’s a healthy dose of ‘life lessons’ and you may well come out of the cinema thinking the tragic death of a young mother was the best thing to ever happen to this particular family.
As diabetes inducing and unoriginal as We Bought a Zoo sounds, it actually kinda works.
Great credit goes to those involved in the casting. Matt Damon can do nice, but not too nice, is his sleep, and due to an established reputation, I always had the underlying feeling he just might beat someone to death with a rolled up magazine or hairdryer if they pushed him too far.
Mee’s two children are as predictable as 6pm at 5:30pm, but the young actors tone down the saccharin to acceptable levels. Colin Ford (how many 15-year-olds do you know called Colin?) plays Benjamin’s rebellious son, Dylan, well enough and Maggie Elizabeth Jones does an excellent job as the precocious and cute as hell 7-year-old, Rosie Mee - a new generation’s Dakotta Fanning, if you will (whose sister, Elle Fanning, coincidentally plays Dylan’s puppy love interest).
The collection of supporting characters also pull the movie along, offering moments of genuine amusement. Special mentions in particular for Curb your Enthusiasm’s J.B Smoove (really) as an irresistibly cheery estate agent, Angus Macfadyen as perma-drunk angry Scotsman MacCready, and John Michael Higgins as his zoo inspector nemesis, Walter Ferris (complete with a phallically symbolic measuring tape).
We Bought a Zoo is unoriginal, predictable and seems like it should sink without a sight, but it somehow manages to redeem itself by offering plenty of humour and by pulling back from the more sickeningly cringe-worthy moments its Disney counterparts revel in.
That’s not to says there aren’t some corny episodes, but in between them there’s a film worth watching if you have a couple of hours to spare and can leave at least a substantial portion of your cynicism at the door.