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Film Review: We Bought a Zoo***
This review of We Bought a Zoo is a week late because of the avant-garde film festival at Theatro Ena – which is ironic, because We Bought a Zoo is about as far from avant-garde as it’s possible to get. Matt Damon is Benjamin Mee, a widower with two kids – and he buys a zoo, an actual zoo which (for some reason) is available to buy on the open market. Kelly the head zookeeper (Scarlett Johansson) provides motivation and possible romance. Assorted animals – Solomon the lion, Spar the elderly tiger, exotic birds and reptiles – provide cuteness, especially when paired with Ben’s winsome 7-year-old daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). The new environment provides opportunities for the fractured family (Rosie and her ‘troubled’ teenage brother) to grow and heal. And of course there’s tension: Will the zoo pass its inspection and re-open to the public, thereby repaying Ben’s investment, both financial and emotional?
This is a warm, heartfelt comedy-drama (based on fact, for what it’s worth) that’s bound to be misunderstood and underrated, dismissed as Hollywood fluff when it’s actually more than that. The best way of putting it is that writer-director Cameron Crowe smuggles his own agenda in the guise of a generic ‘family movie’ – which is fine, and would usually be grounds for wild acclaim, but only if Crowe’s agenda were dark and subversive. If he were using the story of a family buying a zoo to make a statement on animal rights, or feminism, or the Holocaust, then people (or at least critics) would appreciate that and applaud him for it – but what Crowe is actually smuggling is humanism, which isn’t the same as feelgood Hollywood fluff yet very close to it. It’s made explicit at the end, when Rosie is asked “If you had to choose between people and animals, what would you choose?” – and she smiles, and we smile, and the film makes its answer unequivocal: “People!”.
The trouble is that Crowe uses synthetic devices, the kind we associate with big-studio films at their phoniest. One example is scene transitions: “The kids are going to be so psyched about this,” chuckles Ben after buying the zoo – and we cut to teenage Dylan (Colin Ford) at the dinner table, not exactly ‘psyched’ as he yells “You’ve got to be kidding me!”. Another example is well-known songs: when the Mees first arrive at their zoo, Crowe scores it to the ethereal early-70s sounds of Cat Stevens’ ‘Don’t Be Shy’ (“Don’t be shy / Just let your feelings roll on by…”), an effect that’s sure to have the cool kids sitting up and yelling ‘Fake!’.
Yes – but Crowe loves music. He was a rock’n roll journalist at 15, an experience he described in Almost Famous (2000). The fact that other, lazier filmmakers use the likes of Cat Stevens for cheap poignancy shouldn’t obscure the fact that Crowe loves that song, and may well have been in tears when he shot that scene. Similarly, the fact that Hollywood always contrives reconciliations between fathers and sons shouldn’t obscure the fact that the big cathartic showdown between Ben and Dylan is beautifully written. The zoo is “your dream, not mine!” yells the boy, which admittedly is a cliché – but Ben defends his dream, opens his heart to his son and reaches out so artlessly, with such naked emotion, that it’s impossible to be cynical. The scene is synthetic (little Rosie appears at the end to provide the perfect kicker), yet it’s also sincere.
We Bought a Zoo is a shameless tear-jerker, yet ‘shameless’ isn’t really the word; the film doesn’t see that there’s anything to be ashamed of – because it goes the extra mile, lovingly burnishing these soppy cutesy moments (Rosie and Ben trying to “catch the spirit” of departed Mum, or Rosie telling Ben “you’re handsomer than the other dads, you have more hair”) till they reflect the love between the characters. Crowe believes in the forces of sweetness and light, and there’s something to be said for that; like his hero (who calls everyone “man”) he’s a bit of a neo-hippy – in love with messy humanity, from the zany estate agent to the various zoo people. The only trouble seems to be that he views humanity through the lens of bad Hollywood comedies like Cheaper by the Dozen.
That We Bought a Zoo will make you cry is a given; the only question is whether it makes you cry with neat, contrived touches like the final line (in which case you might feel a bit manipulated) or with glimpses of something true and touching, deep pain smoothed away by the balm of “human interaction”. The two things are almost inextricable – so you might refuse to cry and instead call it cheesy, just to be on the safe side. Yet the film is finally as square-cut and guileless as its title, earnestly putting itself out there, risking your derision as it tells the story of a grief-stricken family. They bought a zoo.
DIRECTED BY Cameron Crowe
STARRING Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church
US 2011 124 mins