November 27, 2011 at 9:00 am #44639
Particularly with the long-lead sneaks, there was a small amount of thought this film might be a late entry into the race.
We Bought a Zoo
By Rob Nelson
OTHER RECENT REVIEWS:
20th Century Fox release presented in association with Dune
Entertainment of an LBI Entertainment, Vinyl Films production. Produced
by Julie Yorn, Cameron Crowe, Rick Yorn. Executive producer, Ilona
Herzberg. Co-producers, Paul Deason, Aldric La’Auli Porter, Marc R.
Gordon. Directed by Cameron Crowe. Screenplay, Aline Brosh McKenna,
Crowe, from the book by Benjamin Mee.
Benjamin Mee – Matt Damon
Kelly Foster – Scarlett Johansson
Duncan Mee – Thomas Haden Church
Robin Jones – Patrick Fugit
Dylan Mee – Colin Ford
Lily Miska – Elle Fanning
Rosie Mee – Maggie Elizabeth Jones
Walter Ferris – John Michael Higgins
Peter MacCready – Angus MacFadyen
Delbert McGinty – Peter Riegert
Katherine Mee – Stephanie Szostak
Mr. Stevens – JB Smoove
“We Bought a Zoo” is an odd bird,
warm-blooded but largely lifeless. Adapted from Benjamin Mee’s
autobiographical account of his experiences as the new owner of a
fixer-upper menagerie, Cameron Crowe’s overlong pic works hard to
deliver intermittent pleasures, most of which derive from Matt Damon’s
affable lead turn. Animal action, as well as comedy of any variety,
remains curiously sparse as Crowe strains to make a tribe of his human
characters, including a ragtag zoo-keeping team and the widowed Mee’s
two kids. Sneaked nearly a month in advance, Fox’s holiday offering
lacks the zip needed to drive upbeat word of mouth.
Though faithful to Mee’s book in many respects, Crowe’s “Zoo” shifts
the setting from the British countryside to Southern California, and
starts with Mee’s wife, Katherine, having already died from illness
(she’s played in flashbacks by Stephanie Szostak). Like the soul-seeking
protags of Crowe pics past, Damon’s grieving Mee decides early in the
film to turn his life upside down, abruptly quitting his job as an L.A.
newspaper journo and moving himself and his kids — teenage Dylan (Colin
Ford) and 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) — to a rural
property whose 18 acres include the Rosemoor Animal Park.
Shuttered years ago, but still home to members of several dozen
endangered species, Rosemoor is run by the twentysomething Kelly Foster
(Scarlett Johansson), a workaholic animal lover who’s skeptical of Mee’s
intentions until he opens his pocketbook and proves his concern for the
likes of Buster, a 650-pound grizzly bear, and Spar, an aged and ailing
tiger. Mee also has to deal with his own brood, particularly Dylan,
whose bereavement takes the form of stubborn apathy for all but his own
ornately grotesque drawings.
Where Crowe’s classics, “Say Anything” (1989) and “Jerry Maguire”
(1996), work their magic in no small part through indelible supporting
characters, “Zoo” is an altogether messier affair. Among an ensemble
that never quite coheres are Kelly’s teen cousin Lily (Elle Fanning),
who flirts with Dylan; Robin (Patrick Fugit, who played Crowe’s alter
ego in “Almost Famous”), who keeps a capuchin monkey on his shoulder;
MacCready (Angus MacFadyen), who drinks hard and has a bad temper; and
Mee’s accountant brother, Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), who shows up
every now and then to wag a finger at his impractical sibling.
Crowe, who co-wrote the screenplay with Aline Brosh McKenna,
clearly wishes to celebrate the group’s tireless efforts to reopen the
park, but only Damon, convincing and likable throughout, has been given
enough to do. As played sweetly by Jones, young Rosie is just another
implausibly precocious pre-tween who, like Johansson’s underwritten
Kelly, exists largely to smile approvingly at the hero. The animals’
reaction shots appear somewhat more nuanced, though, believe it or not,
“Zoo” manages to shortchange its non-human performers as well.
Per usual for a Crowe film, the soundtrack comes stuffed with
goodies, although the mix of Neil Young, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan, among
many others, lacks the moments of musical epiphany in the director’s
signature works. The score by Jonsi of Sigur Ros sounds a touch
saccharine and doesn’t mesh well with the vintage pop.
Tech credits, with the exception of the shapeless cutting, are
solid but hardly vivid enough to compensate for the pic’s deficiencies.November 27, 2011 at 9:01 am #44641
David Rooney/H’wood Rep likes Damon’s performance a lot:
20th Century Fox
The Bottom Line
Bottom Line: Cameron Crowe’s film has some rough edges, but it ultimately
delivers thanks to Matt Damon’s moving performance.
Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church
NEW YORK – Returning to dramatic features after a six-year break,
Cameron Crowe takes the feelgood family route with the
rigorously sweet-natured We Bought a Zoo. Arguably the director’s least
typical film, it doesn’t dodge the potholes of earnest sentimentality and at
times overplays the whimsy. But the uplifting tale has heart, humanity and a
warmly empathetic central performance from Matt Damon. To quote
his character, “It has lots of cool animals too.”
our editor recommends
Fox is positioning the PG release as wholesome holiday fare in the Marley
& Me vein, opening Dec. 23; the studio ran nationwide sneak screenings
over Thanksgiving weekend to build what will likely be buoyant word of mouth
from the target audience. Fans of Crowe’s work hoping to see him back on edgier
form after the misstep of Elizabethtown may be ambivalent. But while
the film is unevenly paced, its poignancy and joyfulness exercise a stealth
Using British journalist Benjamin Mee’s memoir as a loose
template, the screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil
Wears Prada) and Crowe shifts the story from Devonshire, England, to
Mee bought the zoo while his wife was undergoing treatment for a brain tumor.
The film begins six months after her death (Stephanie Szosak
plays her in flashbacks), with Benjamin (Damon) still crushed but
looking to make a fresh start for their kids, teenage Dylan (Colin
Ford) and 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones).
When brooding Dylan is expelled from school for theft, Benjamin quits his job at
a Los Angeles newspaper and starts shopping for properties outside the city.
Against the advice of his older brother
Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), Benjamin spends his inheritance
on a run-down zoo. Long closed to the public, it nonetheless comes with some 200
animals and a motley handful of unpaid staff, led by zookeeper Kelly
The principal narrative driver is the mission to get the money pit of a zoo
up to inspection standards in time for a planned reopening. But Crowe balances
the action between underpowered workplace comedy – a depressed grizzly bear, a
crate of runaway tropical snakes — and the more heartfelt personal stakes of a
still-grieving family. Most of the conflict comes from Benjamin and Dylan, who
are too alike to communicate effectively.
The seesaw of suspense leading up to the grand reopening becomes somewhat
mechanical, with obstacles thrown in the protagonists’ paths only to be cleared
in a repetitive pattern of despair followed by relief or exultation. The film is
not without contrivance or cliché, but the characters are drawn with enough
sincerity to make the script’s manipulations forgivable.
Crowe said in interviews that his model for this movie was the Scottish
director Bill Forsyth’s minor-key 1983 charmer Local
Hero; he pays homage by casting Peter Riegert as
Benjamin’s editor. What We Bought a Zoo has in common with that earlier
film is a genuine depth of feeling. There’s also a lovely lightness of touch in
the application of romance as a healing balm, both in the cautious attraction
between Benjamin and Kelly, and the unguarded affection for Dylan of Kelly’s
12-year-old cousin Lily (the increasingly luminous Elle
As always in Crowe’s films, music plays a crucial role in shaping mood. That
goes for the lilting tunes by composer Jónsiof Icelandic cult
band Sigur Rós, and the eclectic song selection, which shuffles
oldies-but-goodies with contemporary tracks.
While most of them are given little to chew on, the cast is solid. In
Johansson’s understated performance, Kelly is smart and perceptive, drawn to
Benjamin but too serious about her work to flirt. Church’s wry affability is the
ideal contrast to Damon’s somber restraint; Ford balances anger with raw hurt;
and Jones is adorable even if her precocious character suffers from Crowe’s
fondness for overwritten, movie-ish dialogue. As one of the zoo
staffers, Patrick Fugit doesn’t get to do much beyond lope
around with a capuchin monkey on his shoulder, but it’s nice to see Crowe’s
Almost Famous alter ego along for the ride.
The force that binds the disparate characters together and anchors the story
in emotional truth is Damon’s Benjamin. His struggle gives the movie a soulful
pull, even at its most predictable. Whether he’s pleading with an ailing Bengal
tiger not to give up the will to live, lost in melancholy solitude or yelling in
frustration at his son about a shared pain that neither of them can express,
Damon brings integrity and intrinsic decency to a character just searching for
the courage to emerge from grief.
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