Light on animal shenanigans but high on schmaltz, Cameron Crowe returns to narrative filmmaking after a brief sabbatical to make music documentaries with We Bought a Zoo a family friendly tale based on the real life story of former UK journalist Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), who after the untimely death of his wife uprooted his family to a new and remarkably different lifestyle in the country.
Using a familiar Hollywood mould, We Bought a Zoo transfers the film’s plot from Dartmoor Zoo in England, to sun-drenched California. Despite this change in location the pleasant climate hasn’t dampened Mee’s grief for the loss of his wife. His two children are dealing with it quite differently, with his Daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) too young to understand, whilst Dylan (Colin Ford) has directed his disenfranchisement at his gothic art work and getting himself expelled from school. Mee comes across the Zoo which would soon become his home whilst searching for a new house away from the painful memories evoked by his wife’s recent departure. After a drawn out search he finally finds the perfect rural family home, the only catch is that it comes with a barely functioning zoo attached – with part of the sale agreement being that the owner maintains the upkeep of this ailing wildlife sanctuary. At first this fresh challenge excites Mee, but it doesn’t take too long before bureaucracy and the financially crippling cost of food bills begins to take its toll – endangering the future of ‘Rosemoore Wildlife park’ before it’s even had a chance to reopen. Thankfully help arrives in the form of his brother (Thomas Haden Church) and the motley crew of Zoo keepers he’s inherited (played by Scarlett Johansson, Angus MacFadyen, Elle Fanning and Patrick Fugit).
Constantly pushing beyond the boundaries of acceptable sentiment into the type of contrived emotional manipulation you’d expect from the most repugnant of made-for-TV family films, We Bought a Zoo can at times make for a gruelling viewing experience. Just when it looks like Crowe has found the right tone to carry his film forward, he quickly oversteps the mark into a series of overly mawkish set pieces, with this loose dramatic interpretation lacking the foundations required to carry its heavy handed, overly saccharine storyline. It’s a shame as beneath the warm and fuzzy facade of the film lies an interesting tale of repressed grief and the traumatic effects of maternal loss on a close knit family – unfortunately when this narrative device is used it’s done so in such a maudlin way that it’s impact is instantly diluted, quickly evolving into a collection of absurd and hideously misguided dream sequences.
The overpowering soundtrack by Sigur Rós’ Jonsi attempts to cover up the ineptitude of the film’s clumsy script, however, it’s excessive use soon becomes increasingly grating and instead of masking the atrocious delivery by the actors it only illuminates their failings. It’s difficult to tell if the stunted performances from Damon, Church and Johansson stems from the film’s weak script or a genuine lack of interest in the project – either way their wooden depiction of these one dimensional characters doesn’t go unnoticed.
What perhaps is most exasperating about We Bought a Zoo is it’s implausibility (despite being based on true events) and its disregard for common sense. At no point does anyone question the motives behind Mee’s rash actions, and the financial effects on his family this life changing sacrifice involves. Benjamin’s brother desperately attempts to be the voice of reason, constantly trying to bring a much needed dose of realism into his brother’s extravagant plans – however, much like the father in Marry Poppins (Who’s insightful warning to save your money and invest it wisely was regarded with the highest disdain – despite now being the type of ethos we wish our bankers followed) is instantly shot down, portraying him like a clueless fool unable to relinquish himself from the real world and become a carefree dreamer – a dangerous message to preach during such an economically unstable period of history.
Far too boring for kids (who’s recent cinematic intake has resulted in a more sophisticated and discerning audience) whilst too detached from reality for adults, it’s hard to see what type of audience will actually enjoy We Bought a Zoo with its incredibly formulaic story failing to capitalise on its intriguing source material. Indeed, the moment the film succumbs to such new age rhetoric as “Let a little sunshine in” you become certain that there’s little here other than a collection of cheap, nauseating narrative devices accompanied by a collection of severely underused animal extras – an inoffensive, yet totally misguided film that’s ultimately forgettable.