OK, so guess what this movie is about? We live in an age of stupid literal-lateral titles, it’s just one of those things. A world with snakes on planes, hobos with shotguns and other things with or on yet other things. It could’ve been worse – it could’ve been called Matt Damon Plays a Single Dad Coping With Parenthood and the Loss of his Wife. I think personally I would’ve called it Adventure Park, or Coping with Loss: The Mental Breakdown Story. You know, that way they keep the fact that Damon’s character buys a zoo as an ace to be played later in the movie, and then at least there wouldn’t be the annoying “gawsh isn’t this a hoot!” shtick with the audience. “We bought a zoo!” his daughter shouts several times, and if you belong to the Title Evasion club (whereby you leave when a movie’s title is stated by any character), you’ll have to leave while the movie is still trite and lacklustre.
We Bought a Zoo is kind of like Marley and Me. You know what you’re getting going in. That one took me two viewings to be won over, but I’m glad to say this one did it in less. It’s a great relief as well, since director/writer Cameron Crowe has proven himself to be wizard and quack alike. Say Anything is one of my favourite movies and Almost Famous is just so well done on every level, for example. But then there was Vanilla Sky, which was slammed critically and his last effort 6 years prior to Zoo, Elizabethtown, which very much suited the Crowe treatment but which was just dreadful and charmless. And had Orlando Bloom in it.
So anyway, where was I? Damon’s son Dylan (Colin Ford) is experiencing some issues having lost his mother at a vital age, so we’ll forgive him for acting out. But then Damon’s Benjamin Mee (what a silly surname, right?) looks for a fresh start, running away basically from the memories of his home town and withdrawing from peopled territory, and he drags his kids with him.
And then Elle Fanning shows up. Well, she lives on the zoo land with all the zoo carnies, so she shows up relatively speaking. And she lights up this film like a wonderfully cheerful flare. She has this endearing goofy innocence and ebullience that is incredibly winsome. She was one of the best things in Somewhere, I hear she just bowls you over in Super 8 and again here she’s competing with the little girl, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) for the prize of the best thing in this movie. But then it’s not quite a fair fight – Rosie is ridiculously cute, I mean she’s off the cuteness scale, they should actually measure cuteness in units of Rosies. (I don’t know where Hollywood finds all these adorable kids, but anyway…). She’s so cute to the point where you almost feel manipulated and see her for the cheap ploy she is, just before she melts your heart yet again.
There’s some decent acting going around. John Michael Higgins does a good job with the comical jerk zoo inspector, and his feud with the equally entertaining Angus McFayden’s MacCready is pretty enjoyable. Scarlett Johannson is perfectly fine as zookeeper Kelly (but how lucky is Benjamin to have this hottie who just happens to live on the zoo-grounds as well?). And let’s not forget Thomas Hayden Church, who provides smooth and funny support.
Damon does the grieving widower who wants to stay positive pretty well, but his character thankfully shows some cracks later on. But nothing too dramatic. Plus I’m just always glad that he’s not reprising his role as Francois Pienaar, anything’s better than that. I also thought to myself during the movie, “Holy crap, man, Damon’s a dad now, man.” It’s weird seeing actors pass onto different stages in their careers and Damo’s going to have to take on more of these older types in movies. He’s in typically embarrassing dad mode here. But he too wins you over, with his good nature and spirit in the face of the seemingly absurd and impossible. And this whole endeavour of actually buying a zoo (They bought a zoo?!!) turns out to be quite inspiring and powerful.
Finally let’s get to the ending. Crowe knows how to do good endings. And while I’d prefer a movie to start strong too, obviously, the trick’s all in the finish. I don’t know, call me sentimental if you will (well, I got there eventually), but the ending is very satisfactory, very sweet, and wraps up a feel-good movie that you’re not ashamed to feel good about. It might also awaken your sense of adventure.