Based upon the memoir by Benjamin Mee
Screenplay Written by Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe
Directed by Cameron Crowe
**** (four stars)
I have said it many times before and I feel blissfully compelled to recount it for you one more time, dear readers. The world becomes an even more beautiful place and shines that much brighter when Cameron Crowe releases a new film.
I have just returned home from seeing a special advance sneak preview of “We Bought A Zoo,” Crowe’s first theatrical feature in six years, and not only did it not disappoint in any way, it is precisely the type of movie that just is not made very frequently anymore in regards to family films. Having seen this film just one day after Martin Scorsese’s extraordinary “Hugo,” this is an excellent time to take your families to the movies and see works that are enormously entertaining while also existing as sophisticated, emotionally complex and supremely rewarding experiences as a whole. “We Bought A Zoo” does not officially open until December 23, 2011 so I am absolutely thrilled that I have this opportunity to give you an early review and to urge you to go see this film when it arrives. As of this moment in time, I am still basking in the warm afterglow that Cameron Crowe has so richly and expertly delivered.
Based upon the memoir by Benjamin Mee, who utilized his life savings to purchase and refurbish a London zoo with his young children after the passing of his wife from cancer, Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought A Zoo” transplants the action from England to California and stars the indispensable Matt Damon as Benjamin. Six months later, and still in mourning after the death of his wife Katherine (Stephanie Szostak), writer and self-described “adventure addict” Benjamin is struggling to keep pace with the speed of life in regards to the rearing of his two children; the adorable 7 year old Rosie (a serene and completely natural Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and the sullen, withdrawn 14 year old Dylan (an equally impressive Colin Ford), who spends nearly all of his time drawing increasingly dark illustrations inside of his sketchbook.
Once Dylan is expelled from his school for theft, Benjamin decides upon a desperate move…literally…as he transplants his family from the city to a rural area “9 miles away from the nearest Target.” Benjamin and Rosie instantly fall in love with the location but are completely surprised to discover that this spot for a hopeful new beginning for their family is indeed the sight of the dilapidated Rosemoor Wildlife Park, currently owned by the state of California and run by a skeleton crew of zookeepers led by the tenacious Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johanssen). Completely against the advice of Duncan, his loving yet skeptical accountant older brother (Thomas Haden Church), Benjamin purchases the house and zoo in a leap of faith and becomes determined to restore the zoo to its once former glory, save all of the animals from destruction and heal his family and himself in the process.
“We Bought A Zoo” is a supremely warm experience that finds Cameron Crowe in command of his artistry so fully that it never feels as if it has been six years since he sat in the Director’s Chair. It is a film that hits every emotional note perfectly. Yet Crowe wisely understands that every one of those moments needs to be earned, and Crowe earns every laugh, tear and smile honestly. “We Bought A Zoo” is a complete experience designed and aimed for the masses yet does not sacrifice even one iota of Crowe’s personal aesthetics or artistic integrity. His impeccable taste in music shines throughout the film with perfect song selections that made me beam with recognition and most especially through an ethereal score composed by Jonsi of Sigur Ros. I also especially loved the sunkissed cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto which bathed the film in an enveloping warmth that was nothing less than soothing and one meant to be embraced tightly.
All of the performances (which includes a supporting appearance by Patrick Fugit from Crowe’s 2000 masterpiece “Almost Famous”) are pitch perfect, working completely in tandem with each other. Matt Damon, as usual, is the superior, rock solid center and anchor to everyone and every creature in sight. I sincerely hope that he and Crowe find ways to work together again in the future as their combination was a perfect fit.
Overall, for a film with this much mass appeal, “We Bought A Zoo” feels as much of a piece with all of Crowe’s past films. While this film is highly accessible where Crowe’s unfairly maligned “Elizabethtown” (2005) was slightly more experimental, both films are intensely personal works that share themes of love, loss, life and death. The soul of Katherine Mee exists throughout every frame of the film, supplying the entire story with gravity and purpose. I deeply appreciated how Crowe never for an instant sugar coated mourning or the grieving process as depicted in a tender bedtime scene with Rosie, several difficult scenes with Dylan and in one of the film’s very best sequences, an exquisitely painful period where Benjamin looks at photos of his deceased wife on his laptop.
In addition to the deeply effective and necessary pathos, Crowe finds ample opportunity to load his film with knowing humor, a reverential appreciation of the animal kingdom without being preachy and also a teen romance between Dylan and 12 year old zookeeper assistant Lily (the amazing Elle Fanning), that puts the insipid teen romance of “Crazy, Stupid, Love” to absolute shame.
Beyond that, “We Bought A Zoo” is that rare film about Fatherhood, a criminally misrepresented demographic in mainstream movies. I greatly appreciated that the character of Benjamin Mee was not conceived as being yet another sitcom ding-dong Dad we are so often plagued with in the movies. As with the cinematic Fathers in films like Robert Benton’s “Kramer Vs. Kramer” (1979), Ron Howard’s “Parenthood” (1989) and even Gabriele Muccino’s “The Pursuit Of Happyness” (2006), Benjamin, while beleaguered, is a fiercely devoted parent who wants nothing more than to heal his family from their tragic loss, provide them with a remarkable life and most of all, to show them that life can indeed move forward, shine brighter and yes, get even better than before. And all one needs, as he explains to Dylan, is “20 seconds of insane courage.”
Now that particular line of dialogue, currently very much on display in the film’s commercials and trailers is a pure Cameron Crowe-esque philosophical nugget, which to some may feel as if he is attempting to try and re-capture a certain “You complete me” mojo. I can understand that trepidation but I am here to tell you when that line of dialogue arrived, it felt to me as not only being a moment that was unforced nor was it prefabricated. To my ear and more importantly, to my heart, it sounded like the very thing that Crowe would say himself and in fact, I think it may even be seen as a life lesson he has lived through over and again and is willing to share with all of us
And I think that is what impressed me the very most about “We Bought A Zoo” as well as “Hugo.” It is that Crowe and Scorsese have continued to lay themselves bare for their art. To fully present themselves, their personalities and their passions within their work while also trying to make an experience that absolutely anyone, anywhere can enjoy on their own terms. Both films are supreme reminders of exactly what family films have long forgotten to be and how they can be again. “We Bought A Zoo” is a prime example of how family films need not be stupid. How they can be sentimental without being cloying or painfully saccharine. How artistry, an individualistic sense of vision can easily co-exist with broad appeal.
Within a recent interview with Crowe in The Hollywood Reporter, he mentions how he and Matt Damon both had fears about mistakenly creating “the bad version of this movie.” I could fully understand that sentiment, as there are so many ways this film could have gone wrong. But I am here to tell you. “We Bought A Zoo” is perfect PG rated family entertainment and you can feel safe that there is absolutely, positively no cutesy animal reaction shots to be found and no flatulent humor at all. Other than a couple of choice and well placed profanities, it is completely clean for the little ones.
Dear readers, I am typically not one for forced merriment or any odes to sunshine and happiness that never feels true. But that said, I firmly believe that after going through a selection of strong yet exhaustingly dark films like Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter,” Kevin Smith’s “Red State” and even Sean Durkin’s well intentioned “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” combined with looking at the troubled state of the world, we need movies like “Hugo” and “We Bought A Zoo” more than ever. I feel this way because each of those films offer a window into life’s potential and how we all can positively affect each other and make the world a better place.
With “We Bought A Zoo,” we have a film about real people in real situations figuring out how to behave within the best interests of each other and the animals within their care. There are no real villains in sight and the film shows that there is always wonder, hope, possibility, community, and healing. It is a film that proudly announces that the pervading question of life is “Why not?” instead of “Why?” And best of all, Cameron Crowe means every word and every moment of it. He never has to sell you something because he fully believes it. It is obvious. It is honest. And you can feel that belief in every frame of this film.
The highest compliment that I could award “We Bought A Zoo” is very simple. I just did not want this film to end. Thankfully, in a few short weeks, I can purchase a ticket to this “Zoo” all over again.