We Bought a Zoo is an emotional exhibition

We Bought a Zoo, Cameron Crowe’s latest effort neatly spells out its premise in the title.  Based on the true story of journalist Benjamin Mee, We Bought a Zoo sees Matt Damon’s Benjamin doing exactly that, impulsively buying a zoo.  Yet, this isn’t really a film about animals, despite many getting camera time, but rather focuses on a family coping with loss and finding a way to move on.

We Bought a Zoo buys... a zoo(?) 16 March in the UK

There are some striking thematic similarities between We Bought a Zoo and the shockingly Academy Award best pic nominated Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close.  Both films take place in the wake of children having lost a parent to an untimely death and depict the struggles of the remaining parent introduced into their lives.  However, the similarities end there, as We Bought a Zoo deals with the subject manner in a heart-warming, classy manner that Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close would be too busy exploiting 9/11 to even be able to dream of.  Much of the charm in We Bought a Zoo is down to Damon’s measured portrayal and the undeniably adorable performance from Maggie Elizabeth Jones as Benjamin’s daughter Rosie.  Meanwhile, Benjamin’s eldest child, Dylan (Colin Ford), presents the difficulties of a pre-teen whose life has fallen apart. Scarlett Johansson’s head zookeeper leads the too-zany staff that Benjamin assumes responsibility for upon purchasing his new home.  The literal journey in making the dilapidated, struggling zoo a success provides a colourful backdrop to the personal journey Benjamin and Dylan take in the process.

There’s a lot of heart at the centre of We Bought a Zoo, but it’s wrapped in a mixed bag of caricatures and schmaltz.  While the central characters are presented in a genuine fashion, the supporting players, such as John Michael Higgins’  “evil” USDA inspector come off as satirical.  That several of the zoo staff also falls into this category leaves the film oddly balanced.  As would be expected of a Cameron Crowe film, the soundtrack is exceptional.  Here the rock stars’ favourite director has brought in Sigur Rós’ Jónsi, who creates a terrific, emotionally stirring (manipulative? perhaps) score.  The gaps are filled in by classic rock tracks like Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” and “Hunger Strike” fromTemple of the Dog.

From a plot perspective, there’s a lot going on; perhaps too much.  A tree presents at least one obstacle too many and the story doesn’t actually need the love interest posed by Johansson.  However, the subplot of the dying tiger presents a great opportunity for Benjamin to gain closure and it becomes easy to root for his family to come together.  With solid support from Thomas Haden Church and Elle Fanning, often washing away the bad after-taste left by the more over-the-top moments, We Bought a Zoo remains constantly engaging.  The final scene is far too heavy-handed, but seems more misguided than shameless.

With a quirky scenario and a base of well-developed characters, to offset those less so, We Bought a Zoo manages to become better than the sum of its parts.  At times set to goofiness overload, We Bought a Zoo is not without its problems, but thanks to a naturally uplifting message and truck-loads of charm, Crowe’s zootopia is still a triumph.  8/10

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