With Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones. Written by Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe. Directed by Cameron Crowe. Rated PG (for language and some thematic elements). 124 minutes.
Can a film work as a family film and still be a bad film? WE BOUGHT A ZOO is an interesting test case because it’s a film parents and kids will enjoy, but has so many problems that it will entirely earn the negative reviews it gets. In short, if you’re looking for something the whole family can watch, this is fine. If you’re an adult wondering if you need to see it, the answer is no.
Supposedly based on a true story, the film focuses on Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a young widower with two kids. For reasons not entirely clear – the narrative problems begin – he quits his job as a newspaper columnist and relocates his family to a new house which comes with some baggage. Although the house seems ideal, it comes with a zoo and the owner of the house is responsible for the zoo, administratively and financially.
The story is about how Benjamin and young Dylan (Colin Ford) and Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) find their family bonds ultimately strengthened from their joint venture, and how this odd family earns the respect and support of the zoo crew, headed by Kelly (Scarlett Johansson). Although we see that running the zoo is an expensive proposition, we get the sense that Benjamin must have had a small fortune to begin with before things get tight. Likewise while there are subplots involving a few of the animals, we don’t really get a sense of the variety of species at the zoo nor just how hard it must be for a newcomer to get a handle on the operation.
The movie glosses over much of the problems a real person would face – from dealing with their new home to the complexity of caring for the variety of species – to focus on contrived and easily defined matters. Thus, much time is given over to getting the approval of a state inspector (John Michael Higgins) while virtually no time is spent on Benjamin’s learning curve in dealing with the sheer variety of animals under his care.
If the factual details are fuzzy, and get increasingly so across the film, the emotional moments will resonate with those viewers willing to play along. Benjamin’s son Dylan finds he has attracted the interest of a home-schooled girl among the zoo people (Elle Fanning) but isn’t quite mature enough to figure out how to respond. That confusion leads to a nice father/son moment that will distract you from the fact that the details involved in opening the zoo to the public are completely glossed over. Where did the souvenirs come from? How were they paid for? Are customers able to buy food at the zoo, whether to feed the animals or themselves? Who among this tiny skeleton crew prepared it?
It’s usually action films that cause critics to advise viewers to “check your brains at the door.” Yet “We Bought A Zoo,” in spite of its many emotional moments, is also such a film. As long as you go with the flow you should have a good time. The moment you starting asking questions – no matter how pedestrian they might be – the likelier that you will soon be checking your watch and eying the exits.***
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.