We Bought a Zoo certainly isn’t writer/director Cameron Crowe‘s best film. However, it is his most family friendly and, with the possible exception of Jerry McGuire, his most commercial. It some circles that may be seen as a bad thing, but if Crowe’s latest is a little more formulaic than usual he still delivers a charming film that most should be able to enjoy.
Based on a true story, Matt Damon stars as Benjamin Mee, a single-father still reeling from the death of his wife (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). In need of a fresh start, and against the advice of his brother (Thomas Haden Church) and the disapproval of his angsty teenage son (Colin Ford), Benjamin spends the family’s savings to buy a rundown zoo, saving the park and the 200 species from destruction.
In a few months, with the help of the park’s zoo keeper (Scarlett Johansson) and staff (Angus Macfadyen, Patrick Fugit, Elle Fanning, Carla Gallo) Benjamin must to get the zoo up to code if he has any hope of seeing a return on his investment and save the park for good.
This isn’t a film that will surprise you. It’s pretty easy to guess what will happen: Benjamin and Kelly (Johansson) will develop feelings for each other, Benjamin and his son will have it out before learning to really listen to one another, and despite all the obstacles thrown their way the zoo will find a way to survive. That doesn’t mean the journey itself isn’t entertaining.
Much of the credit for the film’s success goes to Damon who infuses Benjamin with uncertainty, heart, and complex emotions surrounding his family he’s still struggling to deal with. Had this same script been cast with someone like Tim Allen, Kevin James, or Robin Williams who had played up the humorous aspects of owning a zoo the entire enterprise would have been unbearable to watch.
It’s nice to see Johansson in something other than her regular roles as either a sexpot or a young woman still searching for her place in the world. Kelly might be young for the job, but she’s experienced and knows her business. It may be a small role that’s unlikely to garner her any critical acclaim but Johansson proves here she’s capable of more than we’ve seen so far.
Child actors are always a challenge. Colin Ford got a little annoying over the course of the film but I think that has to do more with the abrasiveness of the character than the performance. The final argument between Ford and Damon is too long coming but turns out to be one of the film’s best scenes, and he and Fanning share a nice moment late in the film. Maggie Elizabeth Jones is insanely cute as Benjamin’s young daughter who still believes in the Easter Bunny and is happy as a clam at the chance to live in the zoo.
Although most of the supporting performances turn out well, not all of them work. John Michael Higgins is fine in a role he could do in his sleep, but J.B. Smoove is increasingly annoying as the real estate who sells the Mee family the zoo. Thankfully he only appears in a couple of scenes.
We Bought a Zoo may not be everything I want a Cameron Crow film to be, but the director knows enough not to let the more formulaic and absurd elements overwhelm what is essentially a story of a single father and his two children getting over the loss of his wife and their mother. The story, and film, leads with its heart rather than its odd premise. And that makes all the difference.