- Running time:
- 124 minutes
- Matt Damon -
- Benjamin Mee
- Scarlett Johansson -
- Kelly Foster
- Thomas Haden Church -
- Duncan Mee
- Patrick Fugit -
- Robin Jones
- Colin Ford -
- Dylan Mee
Daredevil journalist Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) embarks on one of the biggest adventures of his life when he moves with his two children—teenage Dylan (Colin Ford) and precocious 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones)—to a rundown zoo on its last legs. With the assistance of a skeleton staff—including quirky zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson)—Benjamin hopes to turn the potential money pit into a source of salvation and renewal for his family, still reeling from the recent death of his wife.
The buzz: Based on journalist Benjamin Mee’s memoir “We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Broken-Down Zoo, and the 200 Animals That Changed a Family Forever,” this “true story” marks the first film for writer-director Cameron Crowe since the 2005 disappointment “Elizabethtown.” It’s also the first film he’s directed that he didn’t initiate—Crowe shares script credit here with Aline Brosh McKenna (“The Devil Wears Prada”), who had already written a draft before he came aboard. Distributor 20th Century Fox is so confident of the film’s audience appeal they started holding nationwide sneak previews on Thanksgiving weekend, a full month prior to the official release.
The verdict: As straight down the middle Hollywood sentimentality, “We Bought a Zoo” shouldn’t have trouble finding an accepting holiday season audience ready to have their tears jerked and hearts warmed. The creative disappointment comes from knowing Crowe’s capabilities for sharper, smarter, stronger entertainment. This one is all emotional shortcuts and vaguely defined characters, held together more than it deserves by Damon’s admirable star turn. From his willingness to play a goof (earnestly delivering intentionally embarrassing lines like “I would like to declare us all modern day adventurers and sponsors of animal greatness!”) to his careful approach to the story’s brazen emotional manipulations, there are enough signs that Damon could’ve joined the list of Crowe’s great leading men, if only he had better material (like, say, what George Clooney found in the vastly superior grieving family dramedy “The Descendants”). Instead, he has to settle for rote arguments with mildly rebellious Dylan and insufferably cute conversations with little Rosie—a character Crowe shamelessly exploits for maximum adorableness without really engaging. Despite Crowe’s well-documented talent for creating rich personalities on screen, the supporting players in “Zoo” are generally too broad (John Michael Higgins as a detestable zoo inspector, JB Smoove as an overeager real estate agent) or too bland (Patrick Fugit as a vapid zoo employee, Thomas Haden Church as Benjamin’s deadpan brother), while key female characters played by Johansson and Elle Fanning remain severely underwritten throughout. The only outstanding technical contribution comes from an original score by Jónsi, frontman of the ethereal Icelandic band Sigur Rós, who provides stirring and mysterious music for an overly obvious movie. When an end credits card reveals that the methods used at Benjamin Mee’s actual zoo are “studied around the world,” you’ll have no idea why. “Zoo” is feel good formula all the way, the sappiest reduction possible of intriguing real life events.
Did you know? Looking for a version closer to the truth? Mee’s story was also chronicled in 2007’s four-part BBC Two documentary series “Ben’s Zoo.”
Follow Metromix's Geoff Berkshire on Twitter: @geoffberkshire
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