15 March 2012

Never Work with Children or Animals

On Monday, I went to a preview screening of the new Cameron Crowe film, We Bought a Zoo; as I took Maman, who gets bored easily at the cinema, there was a lot riding on it. Based on Benjamin Mee's book of the same name about his somewhat inadvertent real-life acquisition of Dartmoor Zoo in Devon, Crowe's movie transplants the action to southern California and casts Matt Damon as Mee and Scarlett Johansson as Kelly, the head zoo keeper. The result is more than a little cheesy but also funny and uplifting and, as you might expect for a Cameron Crowe project, has a great soundtrack.

Six months after the death of his beloved wife, Benjamin Mee is in the worst kind of limbo. He can't move on or let her go, refusing to yield to the flirtations of the pretty, hopeful single moms from his kids' schools, but fed up of having everyone feel sorry for him. His newspaper job suddenly becomes surplus to requirements and although his boss is unwilling to fire him at such a difficult time, he takes it as a sign and quits. His 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford) is also having difficulties dealing with the loss of his mother and spends a lot of time making brilliant but dark and somewhat twisted drawings. He also gets into trouble at school and is eventually expelled. Benjamin is angry but sees this as a sign that the whole family needs something new.

After an exhaustive real estate search, he and his precocious seven-year-old daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) fall in love with a beautiful house way out in the countryside. There is just one catch: the house comes with a zoo, the Rosemoor Animal Park, to be more precise. On learning that if a buyer isn't found, the zoo will have to be shut down altogether, Benjamin caves and somewhat apprehensively agrees to buy the place, despite knowing almost nothing about wild animals and zoo-keeping. Luckily, Rosemoor comes with a staff, including Kelly, as well as a somewhat under-used Patrick Fugit, another keeper who is mainly seen with a gorgeous capuchin monkey on his shoulder, and various other quirky employees.

Benjamin soon realises how expensive and complicated the zoo-keeping business really is; for example, should you try to medicate a seriously ill 17-year-old tiger or is it kinder to have it put down? And the zoo will certainly never make any money back if it doesn't pass a strict inspection, which must take place before Rosewood can open. His recovering wildchild-turned-accountant brother (Thomas Haden Church) thinks he's mad and the zoo staff don't have much faith in him either. Dylan hates his father for dragging him out to the countryside, away from his friends, and all three Mees must learn to deal with their grief for their wife/mother, which is no mean feat. And Kelly helps a lot, offering pizza to the kids and friendship--and perhaps more--to Benjamin.

We Bought a Zoo is pretty predictable and although it is more than two hours long, it felt like Crowe tried to pack too much in, which means that the treatment of some of aspects of the film ended up feeling rather too superficial. The tiered ending, in which each element in turn is neatly wrapped up, also meant the film seemed to drag a little. The movie is being marketed as a family film, which will probably put off some adults, yet although the animals will appeal to children, there is probably too much "boring grown-up stuff" for younger kids, leaving We Bought a Zoo in an odd limbo. Nonetheless, Damon and Johansson are both very likable and the relationship between their two characters felt realistic. Crowe has never been too good at female characters (cf Jerry Maguire and almost all of his other films) and Kelly is a little two-dimensional but again, this may just be a product of the film trying to do too much. And against my better judgement, I found myself charmed by We Bought a Zoo and not just because of the gorgeous monkeys and big cats.

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