WE BOUGHT A ZOO

WE BOUGHT A ZOO (2011)

Running Time:  124 mins.                      Rating: 2 Stars/5 Stars

MPAA Rating: PG

Director: Cameron Crowe

Genre: Comedy/Drama/Family

Country: USA

Language: English

Distributor: Fox

Cast: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Elle Fanning, Carla Gallo, Thomas Haden Church, Patrick Fugit, Stephanie Szostak, Colin Ford, John Michael Higgins, Desi Lydic, Angus Macfadyen, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, J.B. Smoove, Peter Riegert, Nicole Andrews

 

WE BOUGHT A ZOO is based on the true story of British journalist Benjamin Mee, a journalist who always put himself on the frontlines for a story and had earned a well-deserved reputation for his fearlessness. One of his dreams was to open a zoo and he did just that by taking over the dilapidated Dartmoor Zoo in Plymouth, England. It is somewhat ironic that a film based on a true story has so many plot points that just don’t feel authentic.

Cameron Crowe, the writer and director of such outstanding films as FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, JERRY MAGUIRE and ALMOST FAMOUS, has shifted the locale from Great Britain to Southern California. Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is a recent widower who is taking care of his two kids, the rebellious teen Dylan (Colin Ford) and his overly precocious seven year-old daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones).

Dylan, a talented but moody artist, has a tendency to get expelled from schools and draw paintings of decapitations and other gruesome occurrences. Does Benjamin call in a mental health professional to meet with his son? Of course not! At a press conference promoting the film, Cameron Crowe conceded that Dylan may be too dark a character.

Benjamin is having problems at work as well as his editor Delbert McGinty (Peter Riegert) hasn’t run his pieces recently and rejects his latest proposal for an article. What does Benjamin do? He quits in a huff even though Delbert begs him not to. His boss graciously says that he’ll lay him off just so he can collect unemployment. Despite the rough economy, and having to take care of a family, Benjamin’s pride bizarrely makes him reject any compensation made out of pity.

With no job and a son who is expelled from school, Benjamin decides that what everyone needs is a change of scenery. Rosie sees a house that she loves and Benjamin decides that the place is perfect as well. The only problem is that in order to buy his desired abode he has to also purchase the rundown Rosemoor Zoo that has been operated by the state of California ever since its previous owner died.

Despite having no experience taking care of animals, Benjamin gives it a go, and puts a fortune into fixing up the zoo in the hopes of getting it open in six months. He is helped by a skeptical but able staff led by head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson).

Of course Murphy’s Law kicks in and whatever can go wrong, does. Solomon the Lion nearly breaks out of his cage; Buster the Bear does find a way out of his enclosure and nearly devours Benjamin; finally, the zoo’s main attraction, it’s beloved 17 year-old tiger Spar is lethargic and may have to be put to sleep. Just when it looks as if the ship has been righted, we are informed that San Diego County is hit with Biblical rains, which is highly unusual for any time of the year, let alone July.

WE BOUGHT A ZOO is hoping to be a holiday family film but it is a rather dark movie where the topic of death is always hovering. The final scene, where Benjamin shows his kids the restaurant where met his deceased wife, is particularly cloying. Cameron Crowe has us believe that Benjamin’s deceased wife comes back to life at the table where they met back in the 1990s and that his kids start talking to her. “Hi Mommy!” screams Rosie.

WE BOUGHT A ZOO does have some positive attributes. The lead actors, Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, are terrific and do the best that they can with a flawed script. JB Smoove, who plays a novice real estate agent, John Michael Higgins who portrays fastidious zoo inspector Walter Ferris, and Thomas Haden Church who takes on the role of Benjamin’s brother Duncan, provide much needed comic relief. The yeoman work of those who toil in zoos worldwide for little remuneration is nicely saluted.

Unfortunately the awful plot contrivances of WE BOUGHT A ZOO make you feel as if you’ve spent too much time in the elephant house when you leave the theater.

 

If you like this recommendations: Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Born Free, Gorillas In The Mist