Sunday, April 08, 2012

We Bought a Zoo

movie review: in the picture

We Bought a Zoo **1/2

*ing:  Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Elle Fanning, Angus MacFadyen, Patrick Fugit, John Michael Higgins, and Carla Gallo
Directed by: Cameron Crowe

In 2006, the Mee family bought and relocated to the Dartmoor Wildlife Park in Devon.

In 2008, Benjamin Mee wrote a book about this experience, detailing the many tribulations encountered in the process, including the difficulties of purchasing, financing, renovating, and reopening the venue, while dealing with his wife’s illness and death.

In 2011, Hollywood decided to strip the story of all its nuances, pump it with sap, and release it as a motion picture. The result: a formulaic feel-good flick called We Bought a Zoo.

Our protagonist is journalist Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a bereaved widower, still grieving over the recent death of his wife. In search of a fresh start for himself and his kids – angsty 14-year-old son, Dylan (Colin Ford), and adorable 7-year-old daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) – he moves his family into a house that happens to have a decrepit wildlife park in its backyard. With no prior zoological experience, Benjamin must now try to renovate and reopen the zoo while trying to put his life back together. The menagerie (the action has been moved from England to the Rosemoor Animal Park in Southern California) is run by a crew led by no-nonsense head zookeeper, Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), who is assisted by her teen cousin, Lily (Elle Fanning), both of whom serve as convenient love interests for the Mee father and son respectively.

Clichés abound as the film proceeds, and you’re never in doubt of what the final outcome will be. It is obvious that the characters are operating in a world that was constructed by Cameron Crowe’s imagination, and in which events unfold without even trying to dodge the shackles of predictability and complications are invariably sorted out with relative ease; it is a charming and (ultimately) uplifting world, but it’s hard to mistake it for real life.

Despite the clichés though, it would be unfair to deny the film’s warmth. We Bought a Zoo tugs at your heartstrings as it explores the processes of getting over loss, taking chances, and letting go. Matt Damon is likeable as Benjamin Mee, and tackles whatever is thrown at him – be it a sick animal, a petulant teenager, or a fussy zoo inspector – while maintaining his character’s earnest appeal. Scarlett Johansson and Thomas Haden Church (playing Benjamin’s elder brother, Duncan, who appears intermittently to air his concern over his younger sibling’s impractical decisions) both put on solid performances, as does the supporting cast, despite the fact that most of the supporting characters aren’t given a chance to fully develop. Icelandic musician Jónsi (of Sigur Rós fame) adds gentle ambience to the movie through his score, and the proceedings are, as you would expect (what with this being a Cameron Crowe film and all), accompanied by the tunes of artists including Neil Young, Tom Petty, and Bob Dylan.

But in an attempt to give the film an idyllic Hollywood sheen, the filmmaker has veered off the real life course of events. With details ignored, altered, or completely reworked for convenience, the movie is very loosely based on the actual story as presented in Mee’s memoir of the same name. The original account is genuine, intricate, and intriguing, and most of that simply doesn’t translate to the film, which is content with being fairly sterile and painfully formulaic. The characters and relationships portrayed in the movie are stereotypical, the proceedings lack energy, and the various crises and their outcomes seem contrived. As a result, We Bought a Zoo is a well meaning but predictable portrait of coping with loss and moving on with life. It still offers enough warm moments to be touching and conventionally inspirational, and the solid performances from the cast, especially Matt Damon who injects a degree of realism to the otherwise contrived developments, keep the viewers engaged in the movie for the duration of its overlong two hour running time. So while it may not be essential viewing, it is pleasant enough to while away an idle evening.

- Sameen Amer

Instep, The News on Sunday - 8th April, 2012

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