Cameron Crowe has never been the most prolific director, but the interval since making Elizabethtown in 2005 has been the longest of his career. After immediately establishing himself as an authentic talent, writing and directing some true classics, the last decade hasn’t been as kind to the filmmaker, as his films took a sharp decline in quality. Now Crowe has returned with We Bought A Zoo, but sadly it’s more of a faint cry than a bang.
Based on a true story, the film centers on Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a recently widowed father struggling to raise a teenage son, named Dylan (Colin Ford) and a young daughter named Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). Following advice from his brother (Thomas Haden Church) about a fresh start, Benjamin begins to look for a new house, but when he finds the perfect new home he discovers that it has a catch: it’s actually a defunct zoo. Seeing how much his daughter loves the place, Benjamin decides to take a leap and invest in refurbishing the menagerie and works with the head zookeeper, Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), and her strange assorted crew to restore the park to its former glory.
The greatest success of We Bought A Zoo is its characters and the bonds between them, aided by terrific performances from the entire cast. While Benjamin's relationship with his children couldn't be more different – one is sweet and lighthearted while the other is caustic and harsh – Damon’s has a great, authentic rapport with each of the child actors and the script does a good job developing both. The best developed arc in the movie, however, is between Damon and Johansson, as Benjamin struggles to prove his commitment to the park to the skeptical Kelly, and their relationship successfully blooms into a romance without beating the audience over the head.
While the film as a whole earns its emotional impact, there are definite moments where Crowe is manipulating the audience a bit too much. This is done largely by doing countless close-ups of Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who almost succeeds in being too cute. These scenes don’t taint the story as a whole, but they’re off-putting because the movie is filled with so many authentic feelings that the artificial ones stick out. The audience can tell the difference between sugar and high fructose corn syrup.
The film falters with its muddled and clumsy story, letting the strong central relationships overshadow smaller characters and important plot points. Patrick Fugit, Angus MacFadden and Carlo Gallo play park employees helping Benjamin rebuild the park, the central part of the movie, and though that plot line gets a solid resolution, the talented actors aren't given enough to do. There’s also a romantic subplot involving Kelly’s niece, played by Elle Fanning, and Dylan, which is sweet, but doesn’t have nearly the impact that it should because there’s so much else going on. But even the main storyline isn’t free from problems. Following the aforementioned resolution in the third act, the film immediately introduces another major conflict that throttles the pacing and winds up hurting all of the film’s final scenes.
What ends up holding back We Bought A Zoo are the little things, like the badly underdeveloped bit players or the exposition-filled, misplaced narration that opens the film. It has a lot of these tiny problems, but relationships between the characters, the performances and the story overall are good enough to at least balance them out. The movie isn’t nearly as strong as Crowe’s best work, such as Say Anything…, Almost Famous and Jerry Maguire, but it’s a solid effort following his six year hiatus and definitely a step up from Elizabethtown.
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