I recall reading a rave review of Cameron Crowe’s Oscar winner Almost Famous when it came out some eleven years ago, and having one passage stick out: “What I love most about Crowe’s films [sic] is that he gets every detail right.” I had been a little too young to have cared about Crowe’s work yet, so I couldn’t quite grasp what the writer meant at the time. Today, having seen most of the man’s films and even loving a couple of them, I imagine the “details” that particular critic spoke of was a reference to Crowe’s uncanny ability – through choices of music, deft writing and a genuine sense of empathy – to show us the flaws and complexities of his characters and, without breaking a sweat, to give us reasons to fall in love with them.
I don’t remember the name of that critic whose Almost Famous review I read; I’m not sure if he’s even writing about film anymore. But I am genuinely curious what he might have to say about Crowe’s new film We Bought a Zoo, a movie that – save for the impeccable soundtrack – contains only a fraction of the heart Almost Famous had, and twice the hokum. Akin to how Martin Scorsese made last month’s Hugo, you get the feeling that a major reason Crowe directed Zoo was to make a movie he could share with his children. Unlike Scorsese, however, Crowe’s kids are unlikely to watch this movie with an understanding of what makes their dear old dad so beloved to others.
We meet Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a recently widowed globetrotting journalist struggling to raise his achingly cute little girl Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and his moody, grieving and newly expelled son Dylan (Colin Ford). After quitting his job – for reasons more clear to Crowe and the real-life Mee (the movie is based off his memoir) than they are to me – Benjamin uproots his family and moves them to a new home – a 30-acre, surprisingly low-cost chunk of land, nine miles away from the closest town. The twist to We Bought a Zoo, as the title suggests, is that the Mees’ new 30-acre home is in fact a dilapidated zoo, complete with lions, tigers and a band of dedicated zookeepers who tend to the animals’ needs.
To Rosie’s great delight and to Dylan’s dutiful chagrin, Benjamin takes up the daunting – and expensive – task of renovating the dilapidated zoo, prepping it for a grand re-opening. The film chronicles Mee’s real-life challenge of investing his life savings into what today is the world-famous Dartmoor Zoological Park, all the while attempting to salvage his splintering relationship with his family.
What Crowe sets out to accomplish with We Bought a Zoo is laudable: he attempts to tell an emotionally mature and heartfelt family drama in the guise of a whimsical children’s film. His means of achieving this goal involves finding a way that parents and older children can relate to the Mee family’s more grown-up tribulations while seamlessly enchanting (some might say distracting) the kiddies with a plethora of furry creatures. I consider this whole endeavor something of a risk on Crowe’s part, especially considering this is his first film since his 2005 box office dud Elizabethtown. Zoo is a non-animated, non-franchise, violence-free film intended for families during the holidays and, despite the omnipresence of cute animals doing cute animal things, it hardly strikes me as the year’s most marketable project.
To be entirely fair to Crowe, unbridled affection for the movie he’s making marks every moment, and the aforementioned approach he takes does prove fitfully effective. When the Dartmoor crew attempts to rescue an old and trapped tiger from a high-off-the-ground rock structure, for example, the scene itself is both emotionally harrowing and serves to transition to more human drama in a manner that is, if a bit clunky, nonetheless effective.
The most well-done moments of We Bought a Zoo depict Benjamin’s struggles to keep Dartmoor afloat financially before Opening Day. As the bills and the overdraft fees begin to pile up and as those who depend on him grow restless, many will certainly identify with Benjamin’s struggles to stay out of the red. The stakes here are likely to register even with younger viewers less familiar with the nuances of coping with financial crisis, but are capable of recognizing the emotional toll such stresses take visibly on grown-ups. As Benjamin Mee, that stress comes across beautifully on Matt Damon’s face; if those scenes work, it’s likely thanks to him.
Unfortunately, the script by Crowe and co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna allows very little of that kind of nuance to come through. We Bought a Zoo indulges nearly each of its many characters a story arc or, in some cases, multiple ones. Many of these sub-plots play out as if they were written well before any of the characters were (unsurprising, considering this is based on a true story). The way this disserves Crowe’s project runs twofold: first, it necessarily inflates the movie to an interminable 124 minutes, which includes a coda that would make Return of the King’s epilogue look like an exercise in minimalism.
Second, even that lugubrious runtime isn’t enough to develop each individual arc adequately. Crowe and Brosh McKenna give themselves little choice but to project their characters’ feelings in the dialog not only with frustrating transparency, but in the schmaltziest, most generically plainspoken way possible. This causes some plot threads, like the way Benjamin and Dylan ultimately resolve their issues, feel falsely earned. Other plot threads, like the romantic sub-plot between Benjamin and Dartmoor’s chief zookeeper (Scarlett Johannson), become flagrant afterthoughts hardly worth mentioning .
It’s having to use phrases like “generically plainspoken” and “flagrant afterthoughts” in describing We Bought a Zoo that most disappoints me. For a director who, two decades ago, was capable of saying so much with a movie as deceptively straightforward as Say Anything, it’s painful to see the talented writer/director reach for broad, uncomplicated sentiment to express himself today. If Zoo leaves me with anything, it is hope that someday Crowe will once again begin paying attention to the details.
Bottom Line: We Bought a Zoo occasionally gets it right, but it’s still a far cry from the much of Cameron Crowe’s older, defter work.