This sweet natured adaptation of British journalist Benjamin Mee’s memoirs marks the return of writer/director Cameron Crowe, who has somewhat fallen off the Hollywood map since 2005’s disastrous Elizabethtown. Panned by critics and largely ignored by audiences, the film marked a curious low point for Crowe but does this foray into family-friendly fare mark a return to form?
Relocating Mee’s story from the English countryside to Southern California, We Bought a Zoo sees journalist and self proclaimed ‘adventure addict’ Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) attempting to cope with life as a newly single father after the death of his wife a few months previous. With every corner of the house and every spot in town serving as a painful reminder of his wife, Benjamin seeks a new start for himself and his two kids, surly teenager Dylan (Colin Ford) and cute little Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones).
Against the advice of big brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), Benjamin buys a dilapidated zoo and moves his family onto the land. Complete with lions, tigers, zebras and all other kinds of animals, Benjamin and the remaining staff, including Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), must restore it to appropriate standards in time to open for the summer and start recouping the money already poured into maintaining the money-pit of a zoo.
Though the refurbishment of the zoo provides the drive of the plot, Crowe smoothly interlaces it with the more heartfelt family drama as Benjamin’s attempts to deal with his grief clash with those of Dylan and the pair find it increasingly difficult to communicate. Crowe handles both the animal-related hijinks and the more moving aspects of the film with the light touch required to make both work while also introducing two romantic subplots and a comedy villain in the form of John Michael Higgins’ eager zoo inspector.
Damon’s performance is also key to balancing the film. Equally at home consoling an ailing tiger as he is in a screaming match with his son, Damon makes Benjamin a likeable and intrinsically decent character and his struggle provides the truth and heart of the film. Johansson also finds a lot of truth in her character, giving a subtle and intelligent performance and the cautious romance that develops between Benjamin and Kelly is handled perfectly.
It would be easy to mock We Bought a Zoo, sit and pick it apart bit by bit. It’s overly whimsical, it’s plot is formulaic and Crowe throws far too many contrived obstacles in front of Benjamin along the way but none of that matters. There’s so much charm and warmth here that it’s just impossible not to like this sweet, candy coated film. Crowe may be quite obviously pulling the heartstrings on numerous occasions – Benjamin looking through old family pictures, the decision to put down one of the older animals, anytime little Rosie speaks – but the end result is an overwhelmingly pleasing experience.
Throw in a typically excellent soundtrack, including the likes of Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens and Neil Young, and a brilliant ensemble cast and We Bought a Zoo is a loveable, touching crowd pleaser that marks a very welcome return to form for Crowe.