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We Bought A Zoo

December 23, 2011
We Bought A Zoo

Judging by the usual fare, it’s well-nigh impossible to make a sweet, family-friendly, tear-jerking, heart-warming movie without dipping into syrupy cheap tricks. With We Bought A Zoo writer/director Cameron Crowe and writer Aline Brosh McKenna make it look easy. It probably helps that it’s based on the real story of Benjamin Mee, which keeps at least one foot grounded in reality.

Benjamin (Matt Damon) is a widower raising his fourteen-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford) and his seven year old daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) after the death of his wife. All three of them are stuck. Benjamin — he insists that “Ben” was his father — has a fridge literally packed with hotdishes donated by mothers who see him dropping the kids off at school; he worries that he’s doing nothing right as a father. Dylan is understandably angry, though he internalizes and acts out until he gets expelled from his school. Rosie, thankfully, is young enough to dodge most of the immediate emotional fallout; she’s adorably blunt in the way only little girls in movies can be.

In an attempt to find a fresh start, Benjamin quits his job at the Los Angeles Times and goes house-hunting. With the help of a nervous realtor (J.B. Smoove) he finds the perfect property; it’s got plenty of room, charm, and acres of rolling hills in the backyard. It also comes attached to an all-but-failed zoo boasting forty-nine animal species. Despite the warnings of his older brother, Duncan (Thomas Hayden Church), Bnjamin decides to cash in the inheritance left by his father and go all in.

Thankfully, he’s not in it alone; there are a handful of staff still on board. In particular the head zookeeper, Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), is around, and her thirteen-year old cousin, Lily (Elle Fanning), provides a counterpoint to Dylan’s moodiness. And there’s also the enclosure designer, Peter (Angus Macfadyen), who bears a grudge against he state inspector (John Michael Higgins), who must sign off on the zoo before it reopens in a few months’ time.

Damon is great with kids, and especially as the bereaved father trying to figure out how to relate to his teenager, as he did in Contagion. This is good, since one of the things that makes the movie work is how well it deals with Benjamin’s and Dylan’s grief. Johansson, for her part, convincingly sells Kelly’s ambivalence over Benjamin’s arrival, not to mention her changing feelings towards him. And Fanning, though in a relatively minor role, makes Lily noticeably distinct from her other recent characters, like Super 8 — a feat young actors aren’t always able to pull off effectively.

And of course there are the animals. There are plenty enough shots to satisfy the excitement of, well, going to the zoo. But with very few exceptions Crowe wisely doesn’t try to personalize them or play them up as characters of their own. Like Duncan, we like the animals but we love the humans.

The icing on the cake is the soundtrack by Sigur Ros’ leader Jónsi; if you know the track “Hoppípolla” you’ve got a good idea where he starts, but his music ventures across a wide emotional range, matching and accentuating the action perfectly.

So when the festivities lull this weekend, We Bought A Zoo is an excellent excuse to get out of the house for a couple hours, especially if you have youngish children to keep entertained.

Worth It: definitely.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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