The true story about a single dad and widower (Matt Damon) who decides his family needs a fresh start, so he and his two children purchase and move to the most unlikely of places: a zoo. With the help of an eclectic staff, and with many misadventures along the way, the family works to return the dilapidated zoo to its former wonder and glory.
The best, most compelling elements of We Bought a Zoo, Cameron Crowe’s first movie since his 2005 dud Elizabethtown, have nothing to do with the menagerie of exotic animals.
The heart of the movie based on a true story is an affecting tale of the relationship between a grieving father and his brooding teenage son and how both cope with loss.
But Crowe and his co-screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna can’t resist veering into soppy schmaltz in between lingering close-ups of those animals, scenes which are about as riveting as watching a National Geographic doco on a wet Sunday afternoon.
The result is an uneven pastiche of highly charged drama, whimsy, wildlife doco, corny melodrama and mawkishness.
The movie was inspired by British journalist Benjamin Mee’s memoir which related how he bought a zoo in south Devon while his wife was undergoing treatment for a brain tumour.
The narrative opens as Mee (Matt Damon) decides to quit his job as a gung-ho newspaper reporter in Los Angeles six months after the death of his wife. Anxious to escape noisy neighbours, Mee finds a pleasant looking two-story house on 18 acres (7.3 hectares). He discovers there’s a couple of catches: It’s a zoo which had been closed two years earlier and is being maintained by the State; and a condition of sale is that it continues as a zoo.
It’s a deal, which delights his seven-year-old daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) as much as it pisses off his sullen 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford).
Neither father nor son is good at communicating feelings: they are too alike. Their fiery clashes make for stirring drama but the impact is undercut as Crowe frequently switches focus to the zoo’s residents. The animals’ shenanigans are pretty tame apart from sequences involving an ageing Bengal Tiger and a runaway grizzly bear.
Scarlett Johansson is surprisingly effective as the head zookeeper Kelly, a strong-minded, forthright but lonely 28-year-old who reveals she’s divorced, lives with her mother and feels overworked and underpaid.
Most of the other employees are caricatures (the crazy, boozy Scotsman, the guy who walks around with a monkey on his shoulder) or so thinly sketched they’re nonentities.
John Michael Higgins has a terrific cameo as an officious inspector with a wry sense of humour who approximates the film’s only villain. There’s a modicum of suspense as Mee and his team rush to renovate the place in time for the summer re-opening but the film is devoid of surprises or narrative twists.
The fast-rising star Elle Fanning is Kelly’s free-spirited 13-year-old niece Lily, who lives on the property and is being home schooled. Almost immediately Lily takes a shine to Dylan, who can’t handle the attention. Her look of hurt and disappointment when she thinks Dylan is returning to live in LA is priceless and the mark of an accomplished actress.
As Benjamin’s older brother Duncan, Thomas Haden Church is relegated to dispensing generic advice as if we were writing a Dear Abby column: "You gotta let a little sunlight in" and "If you do something for the right reasons nothing can stop you."
Damon was born to play decent, earnest, well-meaning guys like Benjamin but at least the script allows him to show flashes of anger, frustration with the rebellious Dylan, tenderness with Rosie, a deep grief and a reluctance break with the past. You could argue he’s as much a captive of his circumstances as his zoo’s animals.
The adorable Maggie Elizabeth Jones is a real find as Rosie although she utters some wise-beyond-her-years lines which sound manufactured by the writers in an attempt to make her overly cute.