Wednesday, 21 March 2012

We Bought a Zoo

2011. Dir: Cameron Crowe. Starring: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Colin Ford and Elle Fanning. ●●●○○

It’s strange how distance and time affects your appreciation of a movie. Sometimes you exit the cinema unsure as to how to respond to the themes like Terence Malick’s Tree of Life or bombarded by the intellectualism of Fincher’s Social Network. These are usually highpoints of cinematic achievement, films that make you want to discuss and dissect their intentions. On other occasions the film elicits a more emotional response but even this sometimes needs to be discussed. A few weeks ago I saw The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. At the time I enjoyed watching it but as I’ve talked with my friends and family – most of whom also enjoyed it – my opinion has wavered. Those elements of the film that annoyed me have intensified in my brain whereas the feel-good aspects have dwindled.

But what has this to do with the review for We Bought a Zoo? Do I think that too will lose it’s sheen over time? Well, no, almost the opposite. There are plenty of flaws with Cameron Crowe’s first narrative feature since 2006 but I am going to go out on a limb and say that over time I will look back fondly on the Benjamin Mee story that those flaws will feel less significant and that I will be singing it’s praises for some time to come.

Adapted from the Guardian columnists memoir with the notable change of geography from rugged Dartmoor to sun-dappled (except when the plot requires) California, We Bought a Zoo holds nothing about the plot back in the title, indeed it's one of those films where the title appears to be repeated ad nauseam during the two hour running time. Matt Damon as Mee and his two clichéd children (troubled teen Colin Ford and adorable muppet Maggie Elizabeth Jones) are struggling with coping following the passing of their respective wife and mother, played by Stephanie Szostak is photography and the odd flashback.

Seeking a new school, new house, new neighbourhood and new job (I said they were struggling) Damon buys a... you guessed it, and the family must learn some life lessons from the animals and zookeeping staff and remember how to work together as a unit before it all ends happily and the credits role. If that seems cynical it's only half intended. There's nothing in Aline Brosh McKenna and Crowe's script that in any way surprises or shocks the audience, this adaptation is aimed squarely to the family demographic, the animals are cute, just not quite as cute as the kids, and we are liberally peppered with platitudes such as "I like the animals. I Love the people." from Mee's hard-nosed but eventually approving brother Thomas Haden Church.

Of course the zoo will have to traverse some spectacular obstacles on it's way to opening, from over-zealous inspectors to economic woes to escaping animals - with only the threat of a Biblical flood in the final act seeming over-written for effect - and all of these obstacles will prove as easy to overcome as the apparent intractable father-son emotional pain. Nevertheless the triumph of the grand opening is no less emotive for it's predictability and when the mere sight of red kites can get the eyes watering you know the film has worked it's insidious magic on you.

Matt Damon once again proves he is the natural successor to Tom Hanks, effortlessly taking these everyman roles that magnify his humanity, unlike many of his peers Damon can sink under the skin of a role, and you easily forget your watching him. You can't forget you're watching Scarlett Johannson as the love interest/head zookeeper but she makes the effort to not appear unfeasibly gorgeous.

The acting plaudits mainly go to Elle Fanning as the 13 year old neighbour developing a crush on Ford, she expertly presents a winning performance of annoying character, so even as you understands Ford's stand-offishness you root for Fanning to get her man. (The same cannot be said for Maggie Elizabeth Jones who I saw as giving an annoying performance of a winning character, of course I doubt any child could make me like the over excited six year old as written).

The story also allows for supporting characters (including the animals) to shine in b storylines and whilst the rivalry between Angus Macfadyen and John Michael Higgins may be sketchily put together it's performed with such broad strokes the comedy will amuse the parents and kids alike. There's a bear and a tiger that in their own way provide Mee and his family with the tools and incentive to fix their problems.

Not all the animals get this opportunity and whilst it seems churlish to complain about the mistreatment of a (obviously plastic) snake in a children's movie there do seem to be unnecessary double standards about the needs of these creatures held in captivity. For the record the abuse on the snake is pointed out but only in a throwaway line in the next scene, very disappointing.

There's little technically great about the film, some of the photography is nice (especially the still shots of the deceased Mrs. Mee) and the location work helps with setting the story beats but it's no great shakes.

On the negative side (excluding the unadventurous storytelling) it takes a long time for the plot to get going and the editing appears to be all over the place with the pace of the picture veering wildly throughout and some hints of secondary plot strands that vanished in the final edit.

Overall I think I can recommend this movie to family audiences. It's nice and you'll have a nice time watching it. But I doubt they'll be any strong emotions tied to it at the end of the year.


Colleen said...

I almost saw this in the theater, but then I wondered if it would really deliver for me. I love animals and I like movies where they actually get to be animals instead of talking and stuff. I enjoyed Damon is "Hereafter" and I know that flick didn't get the best reviews, so maybe I'd enjoy him here too.

Runs Like A Gay said...

Damon is always good value, I think that goes doubly when he's in bad movies where his work really stands out.

WBAZ is lovely but not very challenging. I'd certainly recommend it in a curled up on the sofa with a large glass of wine and not pretensions kind of way.

Ceska said...

I absolutely fell in love with this movie. Little rosie is such a special child. That its hard not to fall in love with her. We bought a zoo is a great movie about starting over and learning to love the hear and now.

Runs Like A Gay said...

That's good to hear Ceska. Although personally I didn't like Rosie who came across as a bit of an obvious piece of child casting.

Maybe just not being a Dad makes me a little bit untrusting of cute kids.