‘We Bought a Zoo’
Starring: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Elle Fanning, Patrick Fugit, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones
Rating: PG, for no particular reason
Writer/director Cameron Crowe, absent from the screen for far too long, has returned with the season’s sweetest, gentlest family film.
“We Bought a Zoo” is adapted from journalist Benjamin Mee’s engaging 2008 memoir, which boasts the much more irresistible title of “We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo, and the 200 Wild Animals that Change Their Lives Forever.”
The setting has shifted from England’s Devonshire to the California countryside, and the Mee family has been compressed a bit, but Crowe has retained the saga’s essential plot points and — most of all — its heart.
Thanks to an engaging ensemble cast of misfits, eccentrics and one incredibly adorable child — along with Crowe’s always excellent ear for dialogue — the result is an easygoing, crowd-pleasing charmer.
Benjamin (Matt Damon) introduces himself, via a voice-over montage, as a veteran Los Angeles newspaper reporter with a thrill for adventure and the skill to finesse a story from reluctant and dangerous subjects. Unfortunately, nothing could have prepared him for the biggest adventure of all: functioning as a single parent in the wake of his wife Katherine’s untimely death … still a raw, recent wound as this film begins.
This tragedy has left the family at forlorn loose ends, with Benjamin wondering — on a daily basis — if he’s doing anything right. Seven-year-old Rosie (the beguiling Maggie Elizabeth Jones), wise beyond her years, points out that he hasn’t lost his hair like some of her classmates’ fathers. She does this while carefully making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the next day’s school lunches: one of many details that Benjamin invariably overlooks during early-morning chaos.
Fourteen-year-old Dylan, alas, is a different story. He’s an angry, withdrawn kid whose artistic talent leans toward shocking depictions of gory decapitations. He also has been expelled from school, which gives Benjamin an excuse to attempt the impossible: eradicate Katherine’s memory entirely, by moving to someplace where he won’t be surrounded by constant reminders of their giddily happy times together.
Benjamin and Rosie subsequently take a house-hunting excursion with a newly minted Realtor (J.B. Smoove) who nervously wears his inexperience on his sleeve, but nonetheless has his heart in the right place. He therefore advises caution when Rosie, paging through scores of listings that aren’t quite right, sets her heart on a rustic home surrounded by 18 acres of California countryside (actually Thousand Oaks), nine miles from the nearest store.
There’s a catch, and a big one: The home comes attached to the dilapidated Rosemoor Animal Park, complete with scores of exotic animals and a dedicated but long-unpaid staff.
Overlooking his complete ignorance of zoo tending, seeing only the possibility of a genuinely fresh start that might restore their family spirit, Benjamin purchases the property. This act of folly prompts much eye-rolling from Benjamin’s invariably pained and grumpy older brother, Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), who quite reasonably points out that such an endeavor is a bottomless money pit. Benjamin couldn’t care less.
Duncan gets many of the film’s best lines from Crowe and co-scripter Aline Brosh McKenna (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “27 Dresses”); Church, with his dry delivery and hilariously hangdog features, does ample justice to every word.
Learning how to care for everything from tigers and bears to peacocks and snakes is challenging enough, but Benjamin also faces the wary misgivings of staff members who’ve seen previous owners come with bright smiles and then flee as the bills came pouring in.
The crew is more or less led by head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), a dedicated animal lover who has set her personal life aside in order to hold Rosemoor together. She’s assisted by craftsman/handyman Robin Jones (Patrick Fugit, well remembered as Crowe’s alter-ego in 2000’s “Almost Famous”), never seen without his beloved capuchin monkey, Crystal, perched on his shoulder.
Elle Fanning, who impressed the world with her solid work in summer’s “Super 8,” makes an equally strong impression here as Lily, Kelly’s bubbly, enthusiastic young cousin. As a born and bred “country girl” whose experience thus far has been confined to four-legged animals, Lily regards Dylan as an exotic “city boy” who must be worth her time. She therefore starts wearing makeup and tries to flirt with him, but she doesn’t know how, never having had a crush before.
It’s an engaging, sensitive performance, all the more so because the sullen Dylan scarcely notices her. Except … he sorta does.
Young Jones, though, is the film’s standout, stealing every scene. I’m reminded of the equally charming and irrepressible performance that Crowe drew from little Jonathan Lipnicki, in 1996’s “Jerry Maguire”; Crowe definitely has a flair for directing children.
Crowe and McKenna deftly and quite impressively keep all these narrative plates spinning: Lily’s unrequited crush on Dylan; Kelly’s desire to trust Benjamin, despite too many previous disappointments; Dylan’s hostility toward his father; Duncan’s mounting disbelief over his younger brother’s wholly impractical Hail Mary plan for family salvation.
Not to mention the two primary plot points, of course: Benjamin’s increasingly stubborn determination to make a go of this endeavor, despite the always intimidating learning curve; and his agonized effort to come to terms with Katherine’s absence. These two parallel storylines mesh cleverly via Spar, the zoo’s 17-year-old tiger. At such an advanced age, he needs to be eased from his pain: an act of kindness that Benjamin, as owner, can’t bring himself to authorize … much to Kelly’s growing anguish.
Although the film is laden with emotional crises large and small, Damon shoulders the lion’s share; he persuasively portrays Benjamin’s almost crippling sorrow. He knows that he needs to move on, can’t quite bring himself to do so, then gets angry over this inability.
Johansson, minimizing the smolder she usually radiates, imbues Kelly with both wisdom and the sensitivity to dispense it carefully. We naturally assume an attraction between Benjamin and Kelly — how can one not, with Damon and Johansson on the screen? — but while there’s certainly an undercurrent, Crowe astutely refuses to let this overwhelm the story.
Fish-out-of-water stories are appealing to begin with; when they’re done cleverly, with appealing characters — as is the case here — the result is as irresistible as little Jones’ performance as Rosie. Crowe’s film is sensitive, delightful and droll by turns: a truly winning combination.
And an equally tempting invitation to seek out and read Mee’s book.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com