We Bought A Zoo: Cameron Crowe’s swing at family cinema

By Features Staff Marisa Benjamin

I grew up on Cameron Crowe films: Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Say Anything, Jerry McGuire, and Almost Famous. Naturally, I was hoping for another classic, but you can’t expect much from something that looks like it belongs on ABC Family.

We Bought A Zoo is not in the same caliber as Crowe’s previous works. Sprinkled with Hollywood clichés, I knew how the story was going to end the minute the movie began. Yet, by the credits, I was surprised by Crowe’s new approach to his first family film.

We Bought A Zoo follows a struggling father, Benjamin Mee, (Matt Damon) whose solution to overcome the loss of his wife and to mend his emotionally crippled family is to move to a dilapidated zoo. Mee finds himself on an adventure, one that includes not only his son (Colin Ford) and daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) who are trying to cope with their mother’s death, but lions, tigers and bears as well.

Upon arriving at the zoo, Mee discovers an entire staff waiting for instruction. The dedicated zookeepers include Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), Lily Miska (Elle Fanning), and Robin Jones (Patrick Fugit). They each have their own apprehensions about the “city boy” who’s come to do the impossible: reopen a zoo that’s been closed for years.

One word: predictable. We Bought A Zoo’s story practically constructs itself on clichés. Whether it’s the flirtatious romance between Mee and the beautiful Kelly Foster, the seemingly unresolvable conflict between father and son or the evil inspector planning to permanently close the zoo forever, it is difficult to fully invest genuine curiosity for the duration of the 124 minute film.

Luckily, the stellar cast captures one’s curiosity once more. Crowe has an uncanny talent for placing actors in the perfect roles. Damon simultaneously captures the essence of a loving husband, the unwilling to let go of his soul mate, the hardheaded father who can’t communicate with his son and the persistent altruist who won’t give up on rebuilding the zoo. Mee’s daughter, played by Maggie Elizabeth Jones, is the cutest child to hit the silver screen since Jonathon Lipnicki in Jerry McGuire. Her performance alone is the heart of the film, and this is only the beginning to her undeniable future in the industry.

If there is one thing I can always count on with Cameron Crowe, it’s his ability to construct an impeccable soundtrack. Sure, Crowe used the soundtrack to force an emotional response on the audience instead of relying on his usually brilliant writing.

But in Crowe’s defense, it is a beautiful set of songs, and they do give a hell of an emotional kick. Crowe hired Jónsi, the front man of the Icelandic post-rock band, Sigur Rós, to compose a majority of the music heard throughout the movie. Jónsi’s dainty melodies complement the serendipity between Mee and the zoo animals. His compositions are scattered through out the film, giving the mood an inspirational or melancholic undertone when need be.

While it’s unlikely that We Bought A Zoo will head to the Oscars, it will certainly pluck at heartstrings regardless of predictability. Crowe has a way of turning a story inside out to see its emotional core. Through the intricacies of the characters’ development, we come to find that it is the human characters that actually comprise the zoo.

Why see a movie that is foreseeable from start to finish? Why see a movie that is obviously meant to manipulate one into an emotional roller coaster? Benjamin Mee would answer simply: “Why not?” 

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One comment

  1. CMrok93

    Nice review. Without Cameron Crowe on the director’s chair, or the whole cast that this flick assembled, I honestly think this would have been just another cheesy, schmaltzy, and way too sentimental pic. However, it’s heart is in the right place and I found myself fairly pleased leaving the theater. Check out my review when you can.

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