Daredevil journalist and grieving widower Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) seizes a chance to start a new life along with his kids, troubled teenager Dylan (Colin Ford) and adorable seven year old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) when he buys a house with a zoo in need of renovation. Head zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) is at first sceptical about Benjamin’s intentions but soon warms to his soft-spoken resilience, sincerity and decency. Meanwhile, her young cousin Lily (Elle Fanning) takes an instant shine to sulky Dylan. This dysfunctional family must overcome their personal problems if they are to restore the zoo, pass the all-important inspection and re-open its doors before Benjamin faces financial ruin.
Based on the like-named book penned by British journalist Benjamin Mee, We Bought a Zoo is undeniably a case where an earthier true story has been seeped in a Hollywood gloss. For one thing, in real life the Scarlett Johansson character was a bloke and, one presumes, not the love interest. Nevertheless, dramatic license aside, this endearingly upbeat and uplifting movie marks an engaging return to form for divisive writer-director Cameron Crowe after his disastrously self-indulgent flop Elizabethtown (2005). The fantasy of living in your own zoo is one shared by many a youngster and grownup dreamer alike (which, to be honest, includes this writer) as encapsulated in little Rosie’s jubilant “yay!” upon hearing the news, but Crowe wisely steers his film away from simple saccharine wish-fulfilment towards more insightful human drama. In this he is ably served by an impeccable turn from Matt Damon who ennobles the film with his affecting study of wounded masculinity. The scene where Benjamin shifts between sadness and joy recalling happier times with his wife and children lingers long in the memory.
Human interaction rather than human-animal interaction proves the true focus of the film as both Benjamin and Dylan reawakened to the possibilities of a wide, welcoming world thanks to life-affirming romances with warm-hearted women. If there is a weak link, it is that surly Dylan tips too far from troubled teenager into simply charmless, with Colin Ford gamely struggling but outclassed by a radiant Elle Fanning. Only in movies do beautiful, fascinating girls prove so patient with awkward, self-absorbed boys. Elsewhere, Crowe plays to his strengths crafting vivid comic characters and exuding that familiar warmth for human foibles that characterises his best work. He retains his eye for the poetic moments that make life worth living and his ear for the perfect soundtrack to match, employing Sigur Ros musician Jónsi to supply a haunting score complemented by his usual well-chosen selection of pop tunes.
Occasionally the film overreaches, twisting a simple story in the direction of not only family drama but social allegory, romantic comedy of both teen and twenty-something variety, Capra-esque fable and, oh yes, the story of some nice folks who bought a zoo. If not always successful its ambitions remain laudable. At its best, We Bought a Zoo is a lyrical meditation on the nature of loss and how people united in a noble endeavour can inspire, uplift and bring out the best in each other. That the film achieves without sentimentalizing nature, according the animals their respect while acknowledging their undeniable charm is also an achievement worth celebrating. It also gives Scarlett Johansson her best role in years. The star, who famously eschewed makeup here revealing her natural beauty, rises to the challenge with an ingratiating performance. Of the likeable supporting cast, it is nice to see Patrick Fugit, formerly Crowe’s alter-ego in Almost Famous (2000), back onscreen as a zoo staffer with a capuchin monkey perpetually perched on his shoulder. Angus MacFadyen essays the familiar role of comedy Scot while Thomas Haden Church is welcome as Benjamin’s wisecracking older brother. But along with these veteran players even the animals are overshadowed by angelic child actress Maggie Elizabeth Jones who steals every scene.
American writer/director of mainstream comedy/drama. Crowe made his name as Rolling Stone magazine's youngest reporter during the 1970s, and scripted the energetic high school romp Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Made his directing debut in 1989 with the romantic comedy Say Anything..., followed by the grunge relationship movie Singles and the Tom Cruise-starrer Jerry Maguire. Almost Famous was Crowe's semi-autobiographical rock n' roll road movie, while Vanilla Sky, his remake of the Spanish Open Your Eyes, was an unusually arty Hollywood thriller. Crowe then went on to the disastrous, quirk-filled romance Elizabethtown, but his fans have faith in his recovery.