The Gang's All Here
6 years. It's been that long since Cameron Crowe last did a feature film in Elizabethtown, before taking that long a hiatus and coming back with a bang this year through his documentary Pearl Jam Twenty that chronicled the life and times of the Seattle based alternative rock band, and We Bought a Zoo, a family drama filled with all the good themes necessary for a year end celebration. If you're as big a fan as I am, there's always this feel good factor in his films, together with that whimsical feel and that inevitable touch of romance.
You can't help but to feel just how cathartic this film could have been for Crowe himself, who had during this time split from wife and frequent music film collaborator Nancy Wilson, and short of sounding like a cheap tabloid, you can feel every bit of his emotion and state of mind even as we follow single dad Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), whose wife Katherine (Stephanie Szostak) had already passed away, and now at the crossroads of his life where every turn is a hard decision, especially tasked with raising his kids, moody teenager Dylan (Colin Ford) and the very much younger daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). Priding himself to be an adventurer of sorts thanks to his journalistic days at being gung ho and a risk taker to get the story he wants, Benjamin now faces the adventure of his life when an almost impulse decision to buy a zoo for its compound and house to live in, led to an expansion of his family to include zookeeping staff, animal handlers and the animals themselves, thanks to his injection of fresh funds to keep the zoo alive for just a little wild longer.
No you can't turn into an instant zookeeping expect after viewing this film, as the narrative constantly reminds us how primal some predatory animals can be, the routine experienced by the keepers themselves and essentially a character and relationship exploration between friends, would be lovers whether amongst adults or young ones, and that between family members. Between Benjamin and daughter Rosie, Maggie Elizabeth Jones will definitely steal your heart as the adorable young one whose innocence and sprightly nature boosted the first half of the show thanks to her antics and unbelievable ease and naturalness in front of the camera, while the focus between father and son Dylan had the spotlight to resolve in the latter half, with Colin Ford convincing enough for any parent to want to give him a piece of their mind.
After a glamourous three film outing as the spy Jason Bourne and not so glamourous ones with characters like in The Informant, Matt Damon puts on a little weight to star as the everyday fatherly figure who at times have absolutely no clue how to connect with his children, while having the zoo face pressures in getting the bills paid on time. He does enough here to show that he can tackle dramatic roles with aplomb, while Thomas Haden Church supports the role as Benjamin's accountant brother and realist Duncan. Scarlett Johansson tries hard to deglamorize her sensuousness as the head zookeeper Kelly Foster who slowly develops a liking for Benjamin in part due to his determination in not abandoning the zoo's revival project midway, with the story throwing in a little trivial argument over whether to see off aged old animals humanely, with that theme and plot element of death weighing heavily in Benjamin's inability to let go and coming to terms with his wife's death.
Then there's Elle Fanning starring as Lily Miska, who hangs out in the zoo and is involved in the romantic subplot with Dylan Mee, a puppy love if you'd like that that on one hand didn't quite work out its kinks despite the potential of a clash of system values between small town girl and big city boy, but on the other showcases enough of her ability to step out of her famous sister's shadow and stand on her own ground, especially after a fabulous run in Super 8. If anything, We Bought a Zoo makes you sit up and want to take notice on how Fanning's, Colin Ford's and Maggie Elizabeth Jones' career will continue from this point, having allowed each to shine in their respective roles here.
Like all Cameron Crowe films, the strength lies in the characters, and We Own a Zoo is no slouch in that department, even if the pacing of the narrative may seem to puzzle at certain points, and a blip in characterization most noticeable midway where a serious tiff had Benjamin abandoning his children and left to their devices for dinner, which I felt was a major departure from character, even if one may counter argue he knows that Kelly would be around to see to it that the children are well taken care of after all.
And while Crowe's films at times may seem to sprawl, it always has its moments in the film that will talk and engage you directly with its nuggets of wisdom. There's no shortage of such moments here that will touch, and will also on the flip side inadvertently seem to bear his the director's own heart and emotions. There's a single takeaway that I thoroughly love involving 20 seconds of courage, and that awesome, tear inducing finale scene that brings everything full circle with that coming of terms, that's absolutely brilliant in treatment and full of heart. That scene alone is more than worth the price of an admission ticket, I kid you not. Coming from a Cameron Crowe fan this film is naturally recommended.
Based loosely on the memoirs "We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo, and the 200 Wild Animals That Changed Their Lives Forever" by Benjamin Mee that talk about his experience in refurbishing the Dartmoor Zoological Park in England, it's quite obvious that Crowe and co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna (who wrote screenplays for female-centric stories like The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses, Morning Glory and I Don't Know How She Does It) made major dramatization for their film here, but I suppose if anything it will pique more interest in the real zoo, especially when the film starts to premiere and travel around the world. I know mine sure is, and if I follow my plans for April next year I may just make a detour and head out to Dartmoor myself.