Unapologetically sweet and sappy, and the epitome of a feel-good movie for the holidays, director Cameron Crowe’s dramedy is predictable, obvious... and totally made my heart feel all warm and fuzzy. I don’t care. I love these kinds of films.
Based on a true story, the film centers on widower Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), who decides to take his two kids – moody teenager Dylan (Colin Ford) and so-adorable-you-might-need-insulin-while-you-watch Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) – and move out of Los Angeles. They need a change, a big change, he reasons... and they get one. When Benjamin finds a huge farmhouse on a sprawling piece of property in the middle of nowhere, it’s love at first sight. And, when he discovers the property is actually home to an out-of-operation zoo (complete with 200+ animals), he embraces the challenge of getting it up and running again.
Helping out is an appropriately eclectic and lovable menagerie of human and animal characters alike, including comely zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), boozy Irish technician MacCready (Angus Macfadyen), perpetually cheerful assistant Lily (Elle Fanning)... and an elderly, ailing tiger named Spar. Together, this rag-tag group tries to rally, gather its resources and forge ahead, all as a completely un-subtle reflection of Benjamin’s internal journey to heal from the death of his beloved wife and start his life anew.
Credit goes to Damon, an underrated actor in my opinion, for infusing Benjamin with ever-present undertones of grief and sadness. It’s a really nicely layered performance, and he’s just as good when he’s being goofy as when he sits, tears welling in his eyes, looking through photos the woman he loved so deeply and lost. Thomas Haden Church provides refreshing contrast as (what else?) Benjamin’s devil-may-care brother, whose dry wit and resistance to the zoo project provided some of the biggest laughs for me. And, as mentioned, the little girl playing his precocious daughter is so ridiculously cute that it boggles the mind.
It’s not hard to figure out the messages the film is trying very hard to deliver to its audience, but that didn’t bother me. Sometimes, a nice-guy-beating-the-odds movie that doesn’t want to do anything other than make you happy – even if it’s in a blatantly obvious, cow-towing way – is perfectly okay. As clichéd as it sounds, I laughed and I cried and really enjoyed it. With decidedly family-friendly content and its heart worn squarely on its safari-jacket sleeve, We Bought a Zoo isn’t meant to be sophisticated cinema. It’s something to which you can bring your mom, or your grandparents, or your small children.