I think making a family-friendly movie that is also significant is one of the harder tasks a filmmaker can undertake. Making a film that appeals to a wide range of demographics is difficult enough but when you factor in the need to entertain both six and sixty year-olds, you’ve got a tough task ahead of you. This is why Pixar succeeds every year (2011 excluded) whereas Dreamworks is hit or miss, why I’ll see The Muppets a hundred times but will never again take in Bedtime Stories. We Bought a Zoo illustrates these difficulties in some spectacular and truly frustrating ways.
Our protagonist is Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), an adventure writer who recently became a widower. His daughter, six year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), has handled the loss well but Benjamin is constantly at odds with his son, 14 year-old Dylan (Colin Ford). When Dylan finally gets himself expelled from school, Benjamin decides it’s time for a change and after an exhausting search for a new house, he finally finds the perfect home. The only problem is that the property comes along with a small zoo, including 47 species of animals and a crew of employees. Despite the obstacles and the advice of his brother (Thomas Haden Church), Benjamin opts to buy the zoo and takes his children off on an adventure that will bring more drama than he could ever dream of along with the healing he and his family so badly need.
I’m a huge fan of writer/director Cameron Crowe and I readily look forward to anything and everything that he does. This outing certainly won’t change that feeling but it isn’t one of his better works. Simply put, We Bought a Zoo wants desperately to be both family-friendly and cinematically relevant and that mix just doesn’t blend seamlessly. Crowe’s usual brand of fresh, casual, and well-versed dialogue is muddled with predictable clichés. It often borders on becoming cheesy and it is almost always cloying, working extra-hard to force a connection that isn’t always there. There are a number of scenes which are just fine in terms of post-Christmas feelgoodery but fall flat in terms of really mattering. This uneven mix seems to negatively affect some characters and actors more than others. Ford and John Michael Higgins (as a zoo inspector) both jump back and forth between good and bad scenes and Elle Fanning, who was so good in this summer’s Super 8, doesn’t have any feel for her character whatsoever. I think she’s supposed to be the teenage version of the manic pixie dream girl but instead she just comes off as an idiot. Add in a will-they-won’t-they romantic relationship between Benjamin and his head zookeeper, Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), that would have been better off left on the cutting room floor and you get a cliché-riddled narrative that doesn’t do much to inspire.
When We Bought a Zoo excels is when it gets real. Damon gives a subtle, craftsman-like performance and does an outstanding job of conveying an awful lot about his character in unspoken ways. You genuinely feel for Benjamin and it is the genuine sympathy that Damon elicits that serves as an example of what could have been had the film gone in a different direction. Interactions between Benjamin and Dylan and Benjamin and Kelly in the second act are powerful, filled with emotion that is wholly appropriate for the situation. There’s a story arc involving Benjamin’s relationship with an aging tiger that hits home on a number of levels. The flip side of this is that these moments are much more tense and dramatic than the family-fun exhibited throughout the rest of the film and if Crowe had continued to expound upon these plot points, there’s no way We Bought a Zoo would succeed with the kiddos.
It should be noted that none of this film’s issues are deal breakers. It is funny, entertaining, and totally acceptable family film that never allows its flaws to become cringe-worthy or painful. In essence, it is Dolphin Tale and there’s nothing wrong with Dolphin Tale. But with Crowe, Damon, and a potentially impactful subject matter involved, it could have been better than it is.