We Bought a Zoo
There's a moment in director Cameron Crowe's We Bought a Zoo that's indicative of the whole. A character asks a man why he—with no experience with animals or with running a business—bought a failed zoo. His flippant answer: "Why not?" It is clichéd and tired dialogue. But it works because it's delivered by Matt Damon with a deep, glowing satisfaction as if he just discovered something about himself. It's a smirk that suggests he just told himself a joke, or that there's something deeper to these two words. This ho-hum screenwriting works because Damon makes it work.
The same could be said for the movie overall. Damon—along with the acting of the core cast—holds together a disjointed movie that's not sure if it wants to be whimsical fantasy or poignant realism. It cycles between goofy, mass-appeal family comedy and more mature, personal drama exploring classic Crowe (Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire, Say Anything) themes of grief, finding oneself, growing up and moving on. It is two movies mashed into one. As such, some aspects don't work. Still, the movie stays enjoyable thanks to the acting and genuine heart.
Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a newspaper writer addicted to danger and adventure—but not quite ready for his newest journey. When his beloved wife dies of illness, Benjamin is now the single dad of two: 14-year-old Dylan (Colin Ford) and 7-year-old Rosie (adorable Maggie Elizabeth Jones). All three need a new start. It comes in the form of a new house, which just so happens to have a rundown zoo in the backyard. With Benjamin's brother Duncan (a very likable and grounded Thomas Hayden Church), the young zookeeper Kelly (a strong and dynamic Scarlett Johansson) and a small staff, the Mees have to rehabilitate the zoo before heavy costs ruin them.
When Benjamin makes the decision to buy the zoo—as he lovingly watches Rosie play with peacocks—I found myself only really swallowing this far-fetched premise because it is based on a true story. Otherwise, who would believe that a guy searching for a nice 3-bedroom with plenty of storage space would say yes to an as-is clause that involves lions, tigers, and bears? (Not to mention a far steeper price tag and hefty maintenance costs.)
While the "based on a true story" tag helped me believe his bizarre decision, it turns out that the story of the real Dartmoor Zoological Park (in England) and the fictional one in this film (in California) only really share one plot point: a family bought a zoo. That's typical with movies inspired by real events. But the deviation from the source material here may point to an underlying issue with the film: The makers didn't quite know what to do with this story. A family buying a zoo? Cool! Then what? Is there a love story? Can there be a bad guy? Who is this movie for? As the filmmakers tried to answer these questions, they left the movie with some odd tone shifts. As if the studio and director had different ideas. Or the original script was heavily—but not completely—reworked by Crowe to make it something more than generic family comedy.