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Review: We Bought A Zoo (2011)

*****

 This one most likely isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you’re looking for a movie to watch on a rainy day. But it’s a good movie for those kinds of days, cloudy days where things just seem hopeless and sad. One of those that you watch to put yourself in a good, optimistic mood. Yep, today’s review is We Bought A Zoo.

Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is in a tough spot. His wife died six months ago, he’s having trouble getting back on his feet, and his son has been expelled. So what does an ambitious, globe-trotting journalist and newly-single father of two  do to get himself out of a rut? He looks for a new start, finding a beautiful house on a spot of land that may as well be the Garden of Eden…. animals and all. Indeed, as the title plainly states, the Mee family has bought a zoo.

I will admit, when I heard the premise, the first thing that came to my mind was, ‘Wow, Matt Damon has stooped this low?’ Little did I know that this film would be one of the most out-of-the-blue little surprises I had ever seen. We Bought A Zoo is an absolutely charming little movie. Though it has its moments of corn-syrupy sentiment, and though the plot is utterly predictable, I discovered that I apparently have a soft spot for earnest, well-made feel-good cinema. And that’s exactly what this is. It’s one of those rare family movies that has a leisurely pace and cool animals for the kids, and some legitimate substance for parents and teens.

Matt Damon has more than earned his stripes. He has co-written an Oscar-winning screenplay, delivered as an adept hero in some of cinema’s best action films, and borne his soul in hard-hitting drama. So it really shouldn’t have been a surprise that he could make for a likable central character in a family movie. Damon’s performance as Benjamin is so delightfully nuanced; what with his totally genuine interaction with his children, his flirtatious relationship with zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), or even his quiet, pained reflection upon the memory of his wife. It’s all there, and we feel it with him. He has always been a pleasure to watch, and his charisma comes across seamlessly to create a character we all love to see: the genuinely good guy.

But his is not the only performance worth mentioning. Obviously, we have Scarlett Johansson, whose Kelly is spunky and likable, even if she is a tad overbearing. She understands the character’s initial perplexity in seeing some random dude buy this zoo when he has no experience, but she also demonstrates the loyalty that grows in getting to know him.

The kids are especially sweet. There’s Maggie Elizabeth Jones as the precocious little Rosie, who sometimes seems smart beyond her years, but is, at her core, an adorable little girl. Colin Ford plays teenage son Dylan Mee with admirable gusto. It takes a lot for a kid to play a realistic kid. Usually they overact  or they are awkwardly reserved. But Ford maintains a careful balance between subdued angst and genuine empathy. The kid has lost his mom, he is having a hard time coping. Through rather morbid artwork and a sense of apprehension, you can tell that he’s in pain. But his good (albeit conflicted) heart shows itself in his interaction with Damon, and especially with Kelly’s 12-year-old cousin Lily (Elle Fanning). Fanning shows off the considerable acting chops that won her praise in Super 8 and Somewhere. Her Lily is the first love that we all had as young teens; kind, understanding, delightful to be around, and bringing a bright attitude to everything she does.

It’s writer/director Cameron Crowe who makes most of the film’s successes as well as its few missteps. The missteps can be tackled fairly briefly. For example, it’s a tad cloying. Crowe has always made sentimental movies, and this tree contains some sap, but it’s not nearly as transparent as the kind-of-mediocre Elizabethtown. And the pace seems occasionally confused, transitioning between leisurely and weirdly rushed. But really, this is all minor.

It’s in the little victories that Crowe’s script and direction shine. First off, the impeccable shooting. The atmosphere is fittingly bright and pensive, and just about every shot is well-framed, the lighting therein executed just so. Crowe seems to have an eye for visual emotion, and that comes across in all of his work. All-in-all, it’s a beautiful film to look at. Cinematography students should watch and learn. But then there is also the story, which tackles grief with sincerity, but doesn’t go overboard. Rather, it handles terrible tragedy with empathy and respectful humor. There are so many scenes that hit home, but a couple are worth highlighting:

-There is a subplot which is quite touching, showing Ben’s refusal to give up hope on an old, sick tiger. Everyone tells him it is hopeless, and that the tiger should be put down. But Ben has come too far for that. Giving up on the tiger is giving up on his new life, giving up on the healing after a great loss.

-An emotional dispute between Ben and Dylan, where we see that the two are at a disconnect in life. Neither really understands the other very well, which makes a later scene where they both make an attempt at reconciliation particularly moving.

-Throughout the film, various characters state the principle that all you need to succeed in life is “20 seconds of insane courage.” And, in a scene where Dylan finally uses that 20 seconds to pour his heart out to Lily…. I just don’t have words, it is utterly awesome.

There are a lot more moments in the film that are worth mentioning, but I don’t want to spoil the whole thing. Yes, animals and zoos are plot devices, but this is a story about people, and about how people need people. It’s honest and true, sometimes painfully so, but more importantly, it’s ultimately rewarding.

The music is perfect. Seriously, props to indie solo artist Jónsi for his extraordinary work. While his own work on the score is perfectly atmospheric and well-rounded, capturing the emotion in each scene, he also is infinitely smart in pulling select songs from a couple of other artists (Sígur Ros and Motley Zoo) to further emphasize the joy in the story. The music rarely has a dark moment, and it is never boring or distracting. It is everything that a score needs to be: perfectly fitting, and a great listen on its own.

There is a lot to love here. If families are looking for a heartwarming film that isn’t horrendously preachy, I could seldom make a better suggestion. Plus, if you have young kids, the DVD and Blu-Ray both contain a family-friendly audio track, which removes some of the surprisingly coarse language. Seriously guys, it’s a great fit.

Is We Bought A Zoo mind-blowing? Nah. Is it destined to be a classic? My money says no. But when I have kids of my own someday, and I want to show them movies of Yesteryear, chances are that I will stumble across this in a box of old Matt Damon movies. I’ll look at it, smile fondly, and say “Hey kids, let’s have a movie night.” We’ll all sit back with popcorn and delicious beverages, pop this one in, and indulge in some cheerful nostalgia. Someone will probably cry.

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About Errol Teichert

A young filmmaker, a budding playwright, and a freelance critic.

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