Monday, April 9, 2012

Movie Monday: We Bought A Zoo

This week's movie is the 2011 family dramedy We Bought A Zoo!

Straight up, the only reason I was interested in this film was because of the director, Cameron Crowe. His film Jerry Maguire holds the record for the most times I've seen a film in the theater (ten), and I've loved/liked much of his previous work (Say Anything, Singles, Almost Famous). So while this film, from the trailers, looked like a bland family comedy/drama, I figured Crowe's participation demanded I give it a look.
The film opens during what is obviously a typically harried morning routine with reporter and all-around thrill-seeker Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) as he tries to get his two children, Dylan and Rosie, ready for school. Mee's wife passed away unexpectedly just a few months previous, so the family is still raw.

On the way to school, it's established Dylan is getting into a lot of trouble, and Matt just doesn't have the time to deal with it:
After Dylan is expelled from school after a series of behavioral transgressions, Mee (who has quit his job as a reporter, in a brief scene featuring the great Peter Reigert as his boss) decides to find the family a new house, wanting a fresh start for all concerned.

He ends up finding the perfect house...tons of space, sunshine, and scenic views. Just one problem: it comes with a zoo. And not just a zoo, but a dilapidated, failing zoo, full of wild animals and twitchy staff, led by Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson):
Mee doesn't know anything about zoos, or animals for that matter, but he believes in this new adventure, and plows ahead, spending lots and lots of money (which he has, courtesy of an inheritance, something he shares with his brother, played by Thomas Haden Church). The place needs all manner of repairs, and the animals are of course difficult to deal with, none more so than Scar, an elderly tiger who requires lots of complicated care.

Even more difficult to deal with is a government inspector who comes to make sure the animals are treated properly and the zoo is following regulations. As played by David Michael Higgins, this character seems to be coming from an entirely different, more cartoony, movie:
While Mee's daughter loves the zoo, the son does not. He remains gloomy and sullen, rejecting the good-natured advances of a girl his own age he meets there, and always pining to return to their original home.

When Dylan overhears his father talking to Kelly about him, it explodes into an argument, where father and son finally have it out:
Mee runs out of money to fix the zoo, until a bundle of unexpected cash falls into his lap, thanks to someone from the past. This convinces him to stick with it, and gear up for the zoo's opening day. After some more setbacks, and a thunderous, unusual rainstorm, Mee and his crew get everything ready.

On opening day, the sun is shining, and we see that the new, refurbished zoo will be a success:

We Bought A Zoo is one of those films that has a number of things "wrong" with it, but the whole enterprise is so straightforward and good-natured that you feel like a major league grump complaining about it. The story (based on real life events) is so simplistic and cheesy that this could have been an ABC Family Channel movie, save for the A-list talent involved (and on the soundtrack, more on that in a moment).

Everything here is so bland (except for the scene with Damon and Colin Ford, which has a real angry edge to it) that I kept thinking there was going to be some sort of dramatic, or at the very least idiosyncratic, flourish, something present in almost all of Crowe's films (I say almost because I have not seen the notorious Elizabethtown). I kept having to remind myself that he actually directed this, and not some journeyman TV movie director who grinds out Lifetime movies. After something like the third cutaway of the little girl adorably squealing "We bought a zoo!" to no one in particular, I wondered how much my sugar levels had risen while watching it.

The one area where Crowe is heavily present, and not in a good way, is on the soundtrack. Crowe's background in music is deep and well-known, and the soundtracks to his films are usually excellent. But in Zoo, I kept hearing so many songs by huge names (Tom Petty, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens) that it felt like Crowe was using them simply because he has personal access to people like Petty, Young, Dylan, etc.

Don't get me wrong--I'm a huge Bob Dylan fan and am always happy to hear his songs in a movie (especially when its an unusual one, like "Buckets of Rain", heard in Zoo), but they seemed very out of place here. Most of the time I couldn't fathom what they had to do with any given scene, or the characters. I hate to say this, but it kinda felt like the soundtrack is what someone Crowe's age would consider hip, when to most of the characters in the movie, these songs would be relegated to an oldies station (even more cringe-worthy was a scene where, ahem, Dylan, and the young farm girl played by Elle Fanning talk about Bob Dylan, as if either of them would have any clue who he is, or care. They must have have been gone to that school from Dangerous Minds).

Okay, that said, I still stand by what I stated above: We Bought A Zoo is such a nice movie, and tells such an affirming, sweet story, that simply pointing out all its flaws seems like an exercise in internet douchebaggery, and we have enough of that, thank you very much. Rated PG, full of cute animals and containing some solid performances, its ideal for family viewing. And considering how much garbage is marketed to kids as "family entertainment", you could do a lot worse than We Bought A Zoo.


twinzmommy said...

Fantastic review. I was wondering if I should bother getting this movie for my kids to watch, but now I know.....Split decision! One will definitely like, the other...not so much. Thanks for your in-depth coverage!

Robert M. Lindsey said...

I'll have to check this out. I loved Almost Famous and Elizabethtown. Jerry Maguire was OK, but didn't live up to it's reputation, I thought.

But we are always on the lookout for family movies, so we'll be queuing Zoo up. Thanks.

rob! said...

Thanks for the comments. I have taken my niece and nephew to so many bad, bad, BAD "family" movies that I'd say this one is ideal for the pre-teen and teen set. Its rated PG for some mild language, but looking back I can't even remember what that was.

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