Thursday, 15 March 2012

'We Bought a Zoo' Review

We Bought a Zoo (dir: Cameron Crowe, 2011/2012) Cert: PG


Seven years after his greatly disappointing Elizabethtown, writer/director Cameron Crowe returns to the big screen with an American adaptation of a British true story and hopes that his latest will be considered amongst his best works. According to Crowe, he specifically wanted Matt Damon to lead We Bought a Zoo and visited him on the set of True Grit to get that all-important yes. With his desired star on board and a whole host of other performing talents, has Crowe buried his demons and redeemed himself?

 Benjamin Mee (Damon) is a journalist who sadly loses his wife to ill health leaving him solely responsible for his two children. His small Southern American home holds too many memories of his past so Benjamin decides to start a fresh new life with his family and relocate. During house-hunting, he and his young daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) fall in love with a property that happens to have a run-down community zoo as part of it's contract. The Mee family move in and with the help of head zoo-keeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) and her team they strive to re-build the zoo and re-open to the public.

 We Bought a Zoo has all the credentials to be a sugar-coated, overly-clich├ęd and a highly illogical picture and sadly that's what the vast majority of it's promotion presents, but surprisingly this is not your typical family drama, nor is it incredibly sickly and self-obsessed - it's actually a joyous, heart-warming and immensely entertaining movie and amongst the best films I have seen this year so far.

 Perhaps the film's greatest merit is that it supplies it's audience far more than the title would suggest - yes it is about a family buying a zoo but this is fundamentally a story about dealing with grief, loss and understanding human interaction. It's themes are frank and emotive, it's messages are true and involving and it's ideas are engaging and satisfying. This is a properly developed family film balanced with tears, laughs and a streaming beam of hope that radiates throughout.

 Crowe's eye for capturing facial expressions and motions is uncanny and whilst We Bought a Zoo's beautiful visuals are formed by the skilled cinematographers and art directors, Crowe is very able to tell a character-driven narrative with his camera. Using varied angles, lenses and controlling social spaces, he makes the spectator feel part of the family and part of their adventure, whether good or bad. He is also famed for getting great performances from his actors and this picture is no exception. 

Still from We Bought a Zoo (dir: Cameron Crowe, 2011/2012)
 In fact, Matt Damon's portrayal of Benjamin Mee is amongst his best ever screen showcases and it seems criminal that he wasn't even nominated for any awards this season, nor was the film itself. Damon provides a multi-layered and emotionally controlled performance that really strips back any of his Hollywood glamour and presents him as an every-man in an extraordinary scenario. Benjamin travels through various emotional states due to the loss of his wife and has a particularly hard time monitoring and connecting with his son Dylan (Colin Ford - who looks scarily like Damon), and a large quantity of the top performing is born through this tangled relationship. One particular scene during the second act sees the pair clash in a heart-wrenching argument - it's a truly powerful and deceptively raw moment that only fleshes the picture and it's characters out even more. 

 Johannson is an actress one has defended on countless occasions - far too many people say she is incapable of giving a good performance; have these people seen Lost in Translation, Match Point, The Prestige or Vicky Cristina Barcelona? I suppose not. Johannson is wonderful as Kelly and it's clear that Crowe was aware that more than some zoo attire and having her hair tied back would be needed so that audiences believe the Dolce & Gabbana model really does shovel animal waste as part of her daily routine. This is a quaint, delicate and believable performance and it's clear Johannson had immense fun portraying such a person.

 The ever-reliant and fantastic Thomas Haden Church provides endless laughs as Benjamin's older accountant brother Duncan who constantly tries to warn his flesh and blood about the financial risks he is taking upon himself. This is comfortable territory for Haden Church and he thrives within it; every time he enters a scene, he cracks a subtle yet hilarious gag which really helps to balance each sub-plot the picture has to offer.

 Other notable performers included Elle Fanning in a rather giggly girly role which is sweet and a nice change from her usual characters, plus Jones is just fabulous as Rosie - she has so much confidence and radiance for such a young girl (aged only 7) and one is certain she will be popping up in plenty more films in the future.

 Icelandic singer/songwriter Jonsi (former front-man of Sigur Ros) provides the score for the picture and each individual track really complements the emotions and events occurring in each scene. Expect to feel tingles and have a huge smile slapped across your face when listening even though you'll not have a single clue what he is singing - one just hopes it's as nice as it sounds.

 At times We Bought a Zoo does dip it's toe into the tedious 'All-American Values' sanctuary but Crowe's witty and effective co-written screenplay allows all the happiness and sugary nature that surrounds the Mee family's efforts to feel necessary rather than maliciously dragging it's viewers into a state of desired euphoria.

 This film is not perfect and I'm sure those with a rock-like exterior will be resilient to it's efficient charm and pleasure, but Cameron Crowe has certainly redeemed himself with We Bought a Zoo and for those who love leaving a cinema feeling refreshed and filled with endless glee then this is the movie for you. It's an engaging, wonderful and enchanting adventure laden with brilliant performances and plenty of surprises along the way. I absolutely adored it and I cannot wait to see it again.


A sheer delight to experience and a film destined for multiple viewings. Cameron Crowe, welcome back. It's been far too long.

By Chris Haydon


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