Directed by: Cameron Crowe
Premise: A recently widowed father (Matt Damon) purchases a run-down zoo and must renovate it in time for the seasonal inspection.
What Works: We Bought a Zoo is an enjoyable picture about a family recovering and reassembling after a catastrophe. The filmmakers realize that the renovation of the zoo is the engine for that reconciliation and foreground the family drama against the physical labor. The relationship between Damon’s character and his children is what makes this movie work and the family bonds are very believable, with equal parts drama and comedy. Damon’s struggle to redefine his role as a single father has a lot of subtle beats of reality to it and it’s those small moments, as opposed to the big dramatic blowouts, that give credibility to the parent-child relationship. The other human relationships in the film work well and contribute to what is a very humanistic movie. The budding romance between the wayward son (Colin Ford) and the innocent country girl (Elle Fanning) is very sweet as are the professional relationships that Damon’s character builds with his staff. We Bought a Zoo also has a lot of humor and drama in the story of repairing the zoo. Damon’s character is a fish out of water and his mistakes early on make for some good physical comedy. Later on he must cope with a terminally ill tiger and although dying animals can be a cheap source of sentimentality the film plays this just right and it becomes a very powerful moment as Damon’s character learns to let go. It’s these kind of moments, whether lighthearted or downbeat, that give this story and its character a sense of authenticity.
What Doesn’t: We Bought a Zoo tells a familiar story of a family recovering from a disaster by moving to a new place and taking on a manual labor job. It’s a formula that’s been seen before in pictures as diverse as Life as a House, Are We Done Yet?, and On Golden Pond. We Bought a Zoo does that formula well but it does stick to it without fail and by the time all the major characters have been introduced most viewers ought to be able to map out exactly where this story is headed. Aside from its predictability, We Bought a Zoo is also confused about how to reconcile the bereavement of the father with his emerging romance with a zookeeper played by Scarlett Johansson. The picture juggles both of these priorities but the bereavement subplot needs to be resolved before the character can move on and neither one of these relationships comes to a meaningful conclusion. The main narratives thrusts of the film, the parent-child relationships and the remolding of the zoo, take precedence and are able to cover for this shortcoming but the film does conclude on a few emotional beats that are out of place.
Bottom Line: We Bought a Zoo is a satisfying, if standard, story of family reconciliation. Although it is predictable and some of its story construction is rickety, the film is also a lot of fun and has enough about it that is genuine to make its flaws ignorable.
Episode: #371 (January 8, 2012)