After six years away from the big screen, director Cameron Crowe returns with “We Bought a Zoo”, an adaptation of Benjamin Mee’s memoir of his family’s efforts to revitalize a Southern California wildlife park. Boasting a starry cast that includes Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson and Thomas Haden Church, the net result is disappointingly average mainstream fare; heartwarming but not thought-provoking, emotional without poignancy.
Benjamin (Damon) is a thrill-seeking journalist coping with single fatherhood following the death of his wife. While the couple’s precocious young daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) sympathizes with Benjamin’s rough transition, elder son Dylan (Colin Ford) is less patient. Every bit the angsty teen, Dylan skulks around with headphones perpetually glued to his head, producing brilliant yet sinister artwork that eventually gets him kicked out of school.
Seizing upon the opportunity for his family to start afresh, Benjamin quits his day job as a writer and uses his life’s savings to purchase a run-down zoological park, against the advice of his sardonic older brother Duncan (Church). Predictably, Rosie is pleased with their new living arrangement while Dylan sours at the thought of moving miles away from his friends. The Mees move in during the spring, determined to get the zoo up and running by summer. Luckily the park comes with a small but motley crew headed by zookeeper Kelly (Johansson), who despite initial misgivings regarding Benjamin’s inexperience, combines forces to protect their home from a despotic safety inspector.
Unfortunately it’s Crowe’s misfortune that his film comes out of the gate on the heels of a similar and already highly lauded feature – Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants.” The latter stars George Clooney, also as a distant father suddenly thrust into double-parent duty. Both tackle themes of love, loss and family, but Crowe’s pales in comparison to Payne’s when it comes to depth and wit. Instead, “We Bought a Zoo” feels forced and twee, occasionally even like a sitcom sans laugh-track. The Jónsi score doesn’t help matters either, as the film relies on its overt sentimentality far too often.
What Crowe does capture, however, is the sense of wonder inherent to living at a zoo. As if seen through young Rosie’s eyes, some of the movie’s most memorable moments are of the exotic animals and their interactions with the humans who tend to them. For this reason, younger audiences may get more out of a screening.
It is a shame that “We Bought a Zoo” never quite seems to hit its stride, not least because of its incredible claim to veracity. But the fact remains that even such a stellar cast cannot rescue the film from its own floundering script.
If you’re looking for a family drama this holiday that captures life’s bittersweetness without tipping the balance into “too cheesy” territory, skip this one and go for “The Descendants.”