FILM: We Bought A Zoo Review (***1/2)

Posted: November 27, 2011 in Film, Reviews
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We Bought a Zoo has all the makings for a movie I hate — a cheesy premise, a predictable narrative, and Scarlett Johansson. But somehow — beyond all the manipulative tears I shed — it worked, and I liked it. If I relinquished the final piece of my skeptical pride, I can say loved it. Take away the fancy industry words like screenplay and cinematography, and it’s really about a film connecting with our hearts. And well — my heart was enraptured, intoxicated, and embarrassingly smitten by We Bought a Zoo. It would take the most cynical of men not to feel the same.

Cameron Crowe’s (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) latest feature tells the true story of widowed father Benjamin Mee who quits his job and starts over on a zoo. Like I said, a cheesy premise. The superficial challenges are obvious (taking care of 47 animal species), but Mee’s greater challenge is letting go of a wife he loved dearly with the children he has now. Like I said, a predictable narrative. And along the way, his family finds “comfort” in the animals and caretakers around them. Like I said, Scarlett Johansson.

Despite the pitfalls, the film sings on a highly emotional level. Matt Damon leads the charge as Benjamin, a mature version of Jerry Maguire if Renee Zellweger died and Jonathan Lipnicki grew up to be an angsty teenager. It’s kind of hard to believe this was the same guy who played Jason Bourne. But nevertheless, Damon is genuine and heartfelt, a non-showy performance of pain and strength.

Similar to The Descendants, Zoo attempts to show strong men at their weakest moments — in prolonged moment of grief. But unlike Alexander Payne, Crowe’s film is decidedly more accessible to the mainstream audience. From his usual taste for a quality soundtrack to his work with child actors (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Elle Fanning), Crowe returns back to form following his decade of box-office flops. He still overreaches at some points through an extra plate of cheese (e.g. “I like the animals, but I love the humans”), but when he plucks his strings just right, it’s impossible not to smile with this movie. Maybe shed a tear too.

We Bought a Zoo opens December 23. Here’s the trailer below.


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