Matt Damon Closes Deal in ‘We Bought a Zoo’

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Rating: 3.5/5.0

CHICAGO – Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought a Zoo” is an undeniably manipulative crowd-pleaser but there’s something about being manipulated in such an expert manner that makes the tugging on the heartstrings easier to take. We know what we’re in for when we buy a ticket for a movie about children grieving the loss of their mother, endangered animals, and the healing process through talking to tigers. Most movie goers are smart enough not to expect a deep dose of subtlety.

So it comes down to how expertly the confection is produced. Is it too sweet? “We Bought a Zoo” borders on being a great Christmas treat, only held back a bit by a ridiculous running time, a stereotypical adolescent character, and a few too many tugs to make the final ones as resonant as they could have been. Still, you won’t find a more well-made or moving crowd-pleaser this season (presuming you don’t find Swedish misogyny crowd-pleasing).

Based on the autobiographical book by Benjamin Mee (adapted by Aline Brosh McKenna (“The Devil Wears Prada”) and Crowe), “We Bought a Zoo” is basically about how unimaginable grief can force us to make a serious change in our lives. What do you when you lose the love of your life? How do you break yourself out of stasis when every action reminds you of her? And how do you make sure your kids live as close to a normal life as possible without their mother? These are the questions faced by Mee (Matt Damon) and the reason he picks everything up and decides to move far out of town.

We Bought a Zoo
We Bought a Zoo
Photo credit: Fox

While house-shopping with an only-in-the-movies real estate agent (J.B. Smoove) and Mee’s precocious daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), Ben stumbles upon an amazing property, a beautiful old house that also happens to be on the grounds of a worn-down zoo. Much against the will of his morose teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford), Mee buys the zoo and relocates his family. Of course, he gets a second family with the workers at his zoo including zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), a love interest for Dylan named Lily (Elle Fanning), and workers played by Angus Macfadyen, Patrick Fugit, and Carla Gallo. Thomas Haden Church plays Mee’s at-first-skeptical brother and John Michael Higgins truly over-acts in a few scenes as the zoo inspector who could shut the whole operation down before opening day. He’s so over-the-top that he could be inserted in “Doctor Dolittle 6” without a single reshoot.

Yes, “We Bought a Zoo” is a movie that uses animals as metaphors and sounding boards for human emotions. For some of you, that may be enough to get you to see the movie next door and I totally get that. I have issues when escaped bears and aging tigers become such obvious plot devices. And there are way too many of them in “Zoo.” The script drags too often for the final product to be considered great and there are just a few too many scenes about Mee dealing with the loss of his wife and mother of his children. Some are incredibly powerful, especially one near the end involving a photo slideshow and the last scene in the movie (which happens to be its best), but as I was feeling the emotion related to these final act scenes I couldn’t help but think how much more powerful it would have been if the beats hadn’t been hit multiple times before. The fact is that there really isn’t much to “We Bought a Zoo” considering it runs two hours long.

We Bought a Zoo
We Bought a Zoo
Photo credit: Fox

And I have serious issues with Ford’s portrayal of a teenage boy in incredible grief. It’s not the young actor’s fault but McKenna and Crowe have written the character as a Hollywood cliché. He scribbles sorta-dark art and mopes a lot but has perfect skin and product in his hair. This is not a real kid. Dylan’s arc from artistic adolescent to helpful son is so predictable and unrealistic that it becomes distracting. Ford is a bit better when he’s allowed to open up later in the piece, but he really bugged me early in it. As for other casting choices, Johansson does her best despite feeling miscast and Fanning proves, yet again, that she will soon be a superstar.

Like all high-quality manipulation, all criticism falls away in the face of actual emotion and “We Bought a Zoo” gets there a few times, especially in the final act. Damon brings weight to the whole thing that just wouldn’t be there with a lot of other actors. He commits to everything he does so completely and it’s that commitment that makes Mee feel genuine. It’s clear that Crowe did a few rewrites on McKenna’s original script and it’s not too hard to tell when his ear for dialogue kicks in. And it’s those scenes, the ones in which Damon delivers Crowe’s words, in which the film connects. Call me an easy mark, but I bought it. Maybe not completely, but enough to suggest you buy it too.

“We Bought a Zoo” stars Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Colin Ford, Elle Fanning, Angus Macfadyen, Patrick Fugit, Carla Gallo, John Michael Higgins, and J. B. Smoove. It was written by Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe and directed by Crowe. It will be released on December 23rd, 2011 and is rated PG. content director Brian Tallerico

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