We Got A Zoo: A Family Classic that avoids being preachy

We Bought A Zoo – 2011

Directed by Cameron Crowe
Starring Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, J.B. Smoove, Thomas Haden Church, Elle Fanning, Patrick Fugit, Colin Ford, Angus Macfadyen, Maggie Elisabeth Jones
Screenplay by  Aline Brosh McKenna and Crowe

My wife hates movies with animals.  She is not partial to sad sack films that hang broken hearts out on a ledge.  She loves this film.

I have a proclivity to be cynical of films that “tug at the heart strings,” lulling you along where you know it’s going to end up anyway.  I am not real partial to the “wacky band of misfits,” unless that band includes a Wookie and an ambiguously homosexual pair of droids.  I love this film.

Matt Damon has, since 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, become one of our most reliable and versatile actors.  In the 1-2 punch of Contagion and We Bought A Zoo, he has encompassed every feeling imaginable regarding widowed fatherhood.  I liked what he did in the first film, infusing grief and misery into a reasonable quest for survival.  I really appreciate his approach as Benjamin Mee.  Caught in the malaise of sadness with kids who are in varying states of disrepair themselves, he moves headlong into a new adventure because, well, what else can go wrong?  He portrays a cautious man who will risk ruin to save his kids, but he won’t raise his voice to respond to the challenge of others.

The rest of his family, son Dylan (Ford), daughter Rosie (Jones), and brother Duncan (Hayden Church) are all fine editions of caricatures.  Dylan is disgruntled, talented and lashing out at, you know, the void.  Duncan thinks Benjamin should do what he does, in a swinging single way.  Hayden Church gives Duncan a feeling of genuine concern and an ability to grow as a character.  Rosie takes a page or 3 right out of the Lipknicki playbook.  Difference is, it’s a lot cuter coming from a little girl.

“Their happy is too loud,” she says to her Dad in a moment that is startlingly well written and delivered.  A kid would definitely say this when she says it, with all the nuance and the twinge of sadness proper to the family’s state at the time.

The script, written by McKenna and Crowe, is filled with these types of incredible lines.  Several times the cast teeters on the edge of self-parody, but they never fall in the trap.

“What is so great about being happy?” says Dylan.

“That you’re happy!” responds Benjamin, without a hint of sitcom cheekiness.

A lesser screenplay would have made this a dramatic high point, but Crowe has confidence enough to place it right in the midst of a gathering of loose snakes.  There are several moments like this sprinkled throughout the film, and each of them help to create an environment in which intelligent and kind people converse in a nuanced way. There are so may lines in this film that would have been the best line in other films, and they all fit within the fabric of the story.

Johansson provides some of the touch here, as she balances the comic and dramatic sensibilities easily.  Some of the character actors have a tendency for mawkish faces and unrealistic stances (the zookeeper’s violent obsession with the inspector, and bookkeeper Rhonda’s insistence that Benjamin is a fraud, for two examples), but they are allowed bits of screen time and are given other things to do, thereby lessening the potential for sizable negative impressions.

Better still is the performance of Elle Fanning, who has a perfectly believable crush on the dour Dylan, even if he was named after a dog.  Her fearlessness is her biggest attribute.  She takes a stereotypical character and gives it a life it most likely would not have in other films.

Crowe’s direction is a perfect match for Damon’s character.  He understands that to show too much of any one character, including the main protagonist, gives more the impression of a vehicle for actors rather than a story filled with and about people.

“How come you don’t tell stories anymore,” Maggie says to her father.

“Because we’re living the story,” he says.

I love it when you talk...

Living the story, indeed, and embracing the past as a vibrant part of their future.  That past is portrayed in the aging of a tiger named Spar into a collage of memories of his wife on a laptop computer.   The message of “the right thing to do” in regards to the old cat works as a life lesson for all members of the family.  Recently having lost a cat ourselves, it was a timely message for my youngest daughter that helped her to comprehend the loss, just like we see Benjamin absorb his own.  They go to significant lengths to show the pain of the conversion, and everything is perfectly dovetailed in that scene on the kitchen floor.  I defy anyone not to smile, cry and be amazed at the gift of live when they see it.

The soundtrack songs by jónsi matches each mood as perfectly as the script.  Several classics are mixed into the story as well.  Great soundtracks are always a hallmark of Cameron Crowe movies because he understands why the songs are in the movie.  People live their lives with a running soundtrack.

If you have a family that is varied in personalities, bound by love and filled with intelligent people of all ages, you will love this film, and so will they.  Oh, and the animals are great, too.

(***** out of *****)

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One thought on “We Got A Zoo: A Family Classic that avoids being preachy

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