Cameron Crowe, writer-director of We Bought A Zoo, is no stranger tosentimental, feel-good films. This is the man who gave us “You complete me,” and “You had me at hello,” in Jerry Maguire and the moment in Almost Famous when the band, at odds with each other, break into full sing-along mode to Elton John’s Tiny Dancer. This is the man who gave us John Cusack’s finest hour, melting Ione Skye’s heart in Say Anything (1989) by standing on top of a car, holding aloft a boom box, playing Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes. You rarely have to dig deep in a Crowe movie to find a hint of heart and a bit of schmaltz. And for the most part that’s okay, we like a bit of schmaltz in our lives. But then there’s 2006’s Elizabethtown. A film that trowels on the fromage in such quantities it will likely kill any lactose intolerant person within several miles of it. Oh how we wish we could forget Elizabethtown. Crowe obviously does too. We Bought A Zoo is his first film behind the camera since he allowed Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst to gurn their way through that monstrosity.
We Bought A Zoo starts off with your typical Crowe emotional pull. Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is raising his two children, teenage Dylan (Colin Ford) and seven-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), by himself after his wife’s untimely death. Unconvinced by his parenting skills and desperate to make his kids happy, he buys a rundown house, which happens to come with its very own zoo. With the zoo in severe disrepair, it falls on Benjamin to restore it with the help of zoo manager Kelly (Scarlett Johansson). Throw in a sick tiger, a depressed bear and a few father/son issues and this stuff pretty much writes itself.
Or at least it should. It is after all ‘based on true events’. Here’s the good news;We Bought A Zoo is cute. Very cute. Take your mother out for Mother’s Daycute. In fact, it’s too cute. The young daughter is adorable, the animals are endearing and Elle Fanning is thrown in as a love-sick young teenager, a kind of non-pouting Bella from Twilight, for good measure. Problem is there’s no plot. None. It does exactly what it says on the tin. Benjamin buys a zoo, that’s it. Of course there were going to be problems, but none of them further the story or characters.
Crowe is a master of the soundtrack. With his background in music journalism he clearly knows a good tune when he hears one and is able to put them to resoundingly good use. The moment Sigur Ros’ Hoppipolla kicks in towards the end of the film will have even the most stoney heart lift a little. Perhaps this is part of the problem though. Crowe has the perfect song for the perfect moment and as such, rather than string a plot together, finds moments that offer warmth and then super-heat them with a cracking tune. It’s clever but a good film it does not make.
Thankfully, the cast goes some way to rescuing the piece. Thomas Haden Church gets most of the laughs as Benjamin’s supportive but worried brother. Elle Fanning adds kooky to her already impressive range while Colin Ford shows he’s certainly got the potential for a career as a moody sullen teenager. Scarlett Johansson underplays her normal sultry ways to cute earthy levels, becoming all the more attractive as a result. And be honest, if you absolutely had to buy a zoo, you’d buy one that Scarlett Johansson worked at. Then there’s Matt Damon. Like the rest of hisOcean’s Eleven cohorts, he’s been Bourne-again and is now playing middle-aged dad roles (see Clooney in The Descendants and Pitt in Tree Of Life for other Elevenses dads). Always an engaging screen presence, here he finds huge warmth, especially in his interactions with the young Jones who you genuinely feel he could be related to. If anything it’s Damon you invest the most in and would rather follow his story closer than one of the ailing animals.
It doesn’t stoop to the depths of Elizabethtown but it doesn’t reach the heights of Jerry Maguire or Almost Famous. As such We Bought A Zoo is a nauseatingly sweet, overly long and slightly misguided drama. The most frustrating thing is the plot never lives up to the premise. Sometimes emotions are better kept caged.