We Bought a Zoo (20th Century Fox, PG)

film we-bought-a-zoo_75The specific talents of Cameron Crowe and Scarlett Johansson are a good match for one another.


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Like many people, I consider myself a Cameron Crowe fan, despite the fact that I’ve strongly disliked his two most recent narrative films, 2005’s Elizabethtown and 2001’s Vanilla Sky. (For those of you counting, that means he hasn’t made a good film in over a decade; his last good one was 2000’s Almost Famous.) Meanwhile, I generally like Scarlett Johansson as an actress, though her public persona is grating and she more often than not seems to pick movies that don’t deserve her talents. That said, she’s had a more recent success in my book than Crowe, with 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The specific talents of Crowe and Johansson seem like a good match for one another, though I didn’t realize that until I was in the middle of watching We Bought a Zoo, the new Crowe film that features Johansson as a lead actress. It’s not a great movie, but it is something of a welcome return to form for both parties.

We Bought a Zoo isn’t exactly Johansson’s movie, though; it’s more Matt Damon’s, of whom I am also a fan. Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a widowed father of two youngish children who, in the wake of his much-beloved wife’s death and son’s expulsion from school, begins the movie trying to find a house. He settles on a home that includes, well, a zoo, as you can probably guess from the title. The zoo is in a state of disrepair and is out of Mee’s reasonable financial means to get back up to code and then maintain. Thus, the bulk of the movie has Mee working with the zoo’s pre-existing staff of half a dozen or so to make the zoo operable again (including Johansson’s Kelly Foster, the head of the zoo’s staff), and hopefully financially sustainable in the long run. Mee doesn’t know anything about animals or zoology or even really finances, but he does have a sense of adventure and a distinct, deep-down need to not fail—of course, the film winds up being a success-in-the-face-of-adversity story.

Between all of the kids and animals in the film (two things that are widely known industry knowledge to not get involved with, but here work just fine), it makes sense that Fox is marketing Zoo as a family film. I feel like I’ve harped more than usual in my reviews this year on unlikely seeming MPAA ratings, but I’d be remiss to not do it again here: The PG rating this film acquired is surprisingly low, and I think a lot of parents will be in for an unwelcome surprise. Not in terms of the film’s quality—as I’ve said, it’s a pretty agreeable film—but if you bring the youngsters for a family outing, brace yourself for “shit” being said clearly four times (one of those times preceded by “bull”), an asshole (the word, not visual), and several lines that strongly imply that the Easter Bunny isn’t real. Remember, We Bought a Zoo has the same rating as, say, The Incredibles or Shrek.

But, of course, that’s a flaw of the film’s marketing and not of the film itself. We Bought a Zoo thankfully feels like a Crowe film; he hasn’t attempted an outright family film before so it is something of a feat that he kept his sensibilities intact (which is maybe why, in the end, it seems like a stretch to call We Bought a Zoo a family film after all). There are recognizable Crowe-ian pop songs interspersed throughout, as well as a new score by Sigur Rós front man Jónsi. The pop songs often feel out of place and Jónsi’s score is fine, but perhaps a little too emotionally over the top for its own good.

The rest of the cast is about as strong as Johansson and Damon—Crowe’s films are pretty reliably well cast—with a special mention for Maggie Elizabeth Jones as Benjamin’s young daughter Rosie, who is a welcome addition to the very small club of cute kids who can actually act. Elsewhere we have Curb Your Enthusiasm’s J.B. Smoove as a realtor and Elle Fanning (Super 8) as a young employee of the zoo and love interest for Benjamin’s troubled son Dylan (Colin Ford). And speaking of love interests, prepare yourself for multiple big romantic gestures in typical Crowe style—remember, this is the guy who made movies like Say Anything… and Jerry Maguire. | Pete Timmermann

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