Sometimes, the world forgets just how good a filmmaker Cameron Crowe is. Appreciating that his output has been bumpy since the release of Almost Famous, there are moments in We Bought A Zoo where you appreciate what he can do, that others struggle with. For instance, he can coax excellent performances out of younger actors. He’s able to put across characters that you actually care about. And he’s capable of springing a bit of a surprise.
I can’t be the only person who got the impression from the promotional material that We Bought A Zoo was mawkish, overly sentimental piece of Hollywood nonsense. Granted, it’s based on a true story, but that’s hardly a factor that encourages film makers to put the sugar bowl away.
For most of We Bought A Zoo, though, Crowe pitches the material really very well. It’s the story of Benjamin Mee (played by Matt Damon, in knitwear and sensible clothes), his son, and his daughter, as they try to put their life back together after the death of Mee’s wife, the childrens’ mother. Young Rosie, played delightfully by Maggie Elizabeth Jones, proves to be the positive core of the family, with the troubled disconnect between Benjamin and his son, Dylan (Colin Ford, also very good) fuelling the darker moments.
As Dylan is expelled from school, Benjamin decides it’s time for a fresh start and…, well, the clue’s in the title really, isn’t it?
What’s less expected is just how engaging a human film this is. If you’re expecting a film that focuses on the animals in a cutesy-drama kind of way, then you’re, thankfully, out of luck. Sure, the animals, and zoo, have a metaphorical purpose, but it turns out that the thrust of We Bought A Zoo is about a young family coming to terms with grief, and trying to move on.
That’s a description that does the film few favours, as it’s a largely positive piece of cinema. It’s got light humour, sure direction from Crowe, and it’s an easy film to enjoy. But that’s substance to it all, too.
It does have missteps, though, that really hurt it. Firstly, there’s the running time. We Bought A Zoo does outstay its welcome, choosing to wrap things up just a little too well, a good while after the film has reached what appears to be its natural closing point.
And then there’s the character of Walter Ferris, played by John Michael Higgins. There’s certainly a movie sheen to the way that the characters are portrayed in the film, but in the case of Ferris, the zoo inspector, it feels as if a pantomime baddie has stumbled onto the set. It’s the one performance that really jars, breaking the tone of the film by having a character who doesn’t feel in any real way believeable.
Because, even appreciating that this is a Hollywood feature, everything else is buyable. Scarlett Johansson as a head zookeeper? Matt Damon’s migration to amiable Hollywood leading man? Angus Macfadyen’s exaggerated Peter MacCready? In different ways, I was rooting for each of them.
We Bought A Zoo is a gentle, warming piece of cinema, likely to be passed over by many. That’d be a pity. It’s good, solid, quality filmmaking, using the cloak of the zoo to tell an engaging, human story. It tells it well, even if it does like to keep going a bit past its welcome. It might just be more suited to a nice sofa and a warm cup of cocoa, though, but that’s really no bad thing at all.