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The Independent Critic

STARRING
Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Patrick Fugit, Elle Fanning, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones
DIRECTED BY
Cameron Crowe
SCREENPLAY
Aline Brosh McKenna, Benjamin Mee, Cameron Crowe
MPAA RATING
Rated PG
RUNNING TIME
124 Mins.
DISTRIBUTED BY
20th Century Fox
DVD EXTRAS
Deleted & Extended Scenes
* *   Gag Reel
* *   We Shot a Zoo
* *   Their Happy is Too Loud
* *   The Real Mee
* *   Gallery by Still Photographer Neal Preston
* *   Audio Commentary with Director Cameron Crowe, Star J.B. Smoove and Editor Mark Livolsi
* *   Sneak Peek
* *   Theatrical Trailer
 "We Bought a Zoo" Review 
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"All it takes is twenty seconds of insane courage, and I promise you something great will happen..."

I still miss them, though one of them I'd never met.  I think of them often during this time of year.

Laura was my wife ... a beautiful mess of a human being with amazing potential but no ability to see it. We were close, so close to achieving the happiness we'd long believed to be impossible, but there were too many obstacles and painful memories that would ultimately get in the way and, ultimately, end in the death of both my wife and our newborn, Jennifer Lynn.

The holidays are miserable. They always have been. Oh sure, life moves on and forward and on some fundamental level you "start over." But, the remnants remain and this has always been the season where all the thoughts and feelings rise to the surface and dominate my daily living.

These feelings are what really started me down the road of one of my few holiday traditions ... the viewing of a horror film. These feelings, perhaps, are also what drew me to Cameron Crowe's latest film, We Bought a Zoo.

In the film, reporter Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is known as an adventurous writer known for his willingness to do most anything to track down the story. However, his adventurous spirit doesn't begin to prepare him for life as a single parent following the death of his wife. Left to parent seven-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and fourteen-year-old Dylan (Colin Ford), Benjamin experiences all the usual challenges ranging from hard lessons in parenting to dealing with ill-advised flirtations from parents at his children's school. While his relationship with Rosie remains positive, the divide between father and son widens as Dylan's inner turmoil becomes increasingly unreachable. Encouraged by his older brother (Thomas Haden Church) to begin interacting with humanity again in an attempt to start over, Benjamin (Ben was his father!) decides to move his family away from a slew of painful memories.

An exhaustive search reveals the seemingly perfect house... with one major obstacle. It's a dilapidated, currently shut down zoo with a long unpaid staff and dozens of animals including lions, tigers and bears.

Oh my.

Rosie's ecstatic. Dylan is distraught. That encouraging big brother? Let's just say that this isn't exactly what he had in mind when he encouraged Benjamin to start over. In addition to trying to win over his children, Benjamin must convince his crew that he's not some fly-by-night who will give up when the going gets tough. There's Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), the Head Zookeeper, Kelly's 13-year-old cousin Lily (Elle Fanning), a design and mechanical genius with a penchant for booze (Angus Macfadyen) and a congenial laborer of sorts who is never seen without a capuchin monkey on his shoulder (Patrick Fugit).

If you know the work of director Cameron Crowe, ranging from the brilliant Almost Famous to such treasures as Say Anything and Jerry Maguire to the woefully disappointing Elizabethtown, then you'll likely already know that Crowe has a tendency towards unabashedly maudlin sentimentality  weaving its way through major life issues with a light breeziness and, more often than not, accompanied by some really incredible music.

It's all true here, well, except for the "disappointing" part.

While We Bought a Zoo never quite soars to the greatness of the Oscar-nominated Almost Famous, it is a massive return to form from Crowe's last film, the almost awful Elizabethtown.

We Bought a Zoo is based upon and inspired by the true story of a real life Benjamin Mee, a DIY reporter for UK's Guardian Newspaper who in 2006 moved his family from the comforts of southern France to a zoo amidst the countryside of Devon in England. As is nearly always true, the Hollywood version of Mee's story occasionally deviates from real life as in the simple, yet essential, fact that in real life Mee's family moved to the zoo while his wife was in remission from cancer. She would end up dying a few months after the movie and three months prior to the zoo's opening.

While there may be a deviation from the essential truth plus, of course, the geographical relocation to Southern California, the essence of Mee's book is captured well by Crowe. It helps, of course, to have a stellar cast and Crowe's blessed to have an exceptional cast here.

Fans of Matt Damon will be in heaven here. Damon's performance here is intelligent, sensitive, richly humane and yet fully possessing all the wondrous likability that keeps Damon one of America's most beloved actors. While it's not likely that Damon will find himself picking up a golden statuette for his work here, he still serves up one of those performances that you'll remember long after having viewed the film.

The same is true for Scarlett Johansson, who may very well turn in her finest performance yet. Without an ounce of the self-consciousness and what I refer to as "the wall" that made her seem so uncomfortable in The Nanny Diaries, Johansson embodies Kelly as a devoted, loyal, self-confident woman whose strength is what draws you to her. Less authentic directors would have tossed Kelly and Benjamin in with one another to watch the sparks fly, yet Crowe is far too interested in authenticity to go for the simple answers. There's a subtle dance that occurs between Kelly and Benjamin, a relationship that is borne out of emotional depth and intellectual compatibility that is far more satisfying and believable as Crowe draws it out.

Crowe even manages to beautifully cast the kids in We Bought a Zoo, with Maggie Elizabeth Jones (Footloose) being an absolute and precious delight as young Rosie. Jones is given several of the film's best "aw shucks" lines, but she delivers them with such sweetness and sincerity that it just sort of melts your heart even if you don't want it to. Colin Ford, who played young Sam Winchester on the Supernatural television series, goes much further than the usual brooding, conflicted teen as Dylan. Ford's Dylan is equally convincing as the young man so troubled he's reduced to expressing himself through morbid drawings of decapitations and as he becomes quietly smitten by Elle Fanning's Lily, his polar opposite and full of life and spirit and hope and wonder. Speaking of which, Fanning takes what could have easily been a nondescript secondary player and becomes one of the film's true delights. Thomas Haden Church serves up his usual dependable performance, giving the film much of its humor while John Michael Higgins has a blast as Walter Ferris, the inspector who seems to take a sadistic delight in nitpicking his way into denying licenses for just this type of zoo.

D.P. Rodrigo Prieto's camera work is beautiful without being distracting, nicely capturing the hopefulness within this dilapidated world. All of the animals involved in the film are exceptional, though Crowe never stoops to cutesie shots that may wow the kids but would disrupt the action. There are, however, several deeply moving scenes involving the interactions of humans and animals, most notably that between Damon and Spar, an aging tiger who comes to represent Benjamin's unresolved grief towards his wife.

Aline Brosh Mckenna's script is intelligent, emotionally resonant and frequently humorous. While Crowe can certainly be accused at times of stretching a bit too far for an emotion, for the most part he keeps himself in check here. There are a couple scenes that feel gratuitous, including a scenario involving escaped snakes that does little to advance the story and is one of the few scenes in the film that feels contrived.

As is always true of a Crowe film, the music is exception with Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi scoring the film to perfection and including samples from Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Neil Young that are all woven into the fabric of the film perfectly.

We Bought a Zoo isn't the best of Cameron Crowe, but it's a sure reminder that Crowe remains one of America's best directors when it comes to the everyday experiences involved in being human.

There are times when after watching a film you say to yourself and anyone else who will listen "I loved that film." It can be a brilliant film or an absurdly awful one. It can be a deeply personal experience or it can simply trigger something that stays with you long after the closing credits. As I found myself watching We Bought a Zoo, I did much more than reflect upon my own devastating losses. I reflected upon the life journey filled with love, laughter, hope and determination that has followed.

I remembered that while life experiences may prove devastating, there can be an even more powerful truth.

"All it takes is twenty seconds of insane courage."

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic 


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