Release Date: March 16th
Director: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Elle fanning
Running Time: 133mins
It always happens. Entering a film, you’re greeted with the preface of “based on a true story” and leave feeling like you absorbed a soulless treatment of a life experience lacking depth or resonance. Not this time around, friends. We Bought A Zoo is one of the best “based on” adaptations I’ve seen. It drips with tenderness and meaning. Are you expecting a bombastic overdose of sugary cute & cuddly overdrive? You do have ample amounts of adorable, however it’s not preening. It remains sentimental and specific.
The film opens up with a major location change from the start. What was once rooted in England has now found a home in California. Ben (Damon) finds himself struggling to raise his 2 kids, after leaving his career, and mourn the recent unexpected passing of his wife. The city seems to be too much for the Mee family. Searching for their next abode, they are taken on a whim to a rural treasure. Little precocious Rosie gives it her stamp of approval, and Ben starts the family on an adventure. Hoping a bit of a distraction gives us all what we really think we need. Who knew that diversion was a zoo?
Kelly (Johansson) is head keeper and you get to encounter the quirky cast of minders and animals. Tasked with educating Ben about the ins and outs of running a zoo, it leads to some great moments of comedy. Cue a visit by the arrogant inspector, a slimy John Michael Higgins, leads to an ultimatum: fix it, or forget it. Simple enough until Ben finds out just how much it’s going to cost to be with in code. Will it be worth it? Was this too much to take on?
The movie doesn’t seem to fall into a pit of sentimentality. There is enough light to see you through the dark. The animals have personality and leads to some great performances from Damon. He really is acting to perfection and enjoying every scene. The family dynamic, be it kids, animals or staff, is at key. You do reflect on the interpersonal relationships. Subplots of childhood romance, familial ties and friendship are heavy throughout the story, but not overdone.
We Bought A Zoo is defiantly a Crowe production. The music, subtle character quirks, all his classic calling cards. While fitting that bill, it also manages to be a love letter to the art of cinematography. There are a few scenes that just strike with a powerful beauty. The whole movie is quite picturesque, be it in actors, location, or set up. It just might be too direct, sticking to the fast pace logic characters inherit of movie pacing. It redeems itself with great performances from a rounded cast, beautiful cinematography, and a quirky soundtrack by Jonsi.