Wednesday, December 26, 2012

We Bought a Zoo

2011's WE BOUGHT A ZOO is one of those reliably warm and cozy films folks tend to like because it features decent people doing honorable things. Love conquers all.  Everything will be alright. Add to this that it is based on actual events.  My viewing of it came after watching several downbeat movies, and I have to say, it was a tonic. A feel-good movie (I don't usually toss about that term) that warrants that descrption. It was nice to spend time with characters who weren't eroded of morals. That Cameron Crowe, writer and director of several wonderful films like ALMOST FAMOUS and SINGLES, had made this movie was even more encouraging.

And his dialogue is primarily what separates ZOO from thousands of other feel-good pictures. While the scenarios of a bitter, shut-down teenage boy named Dylan (Colin Ford), who lost his mother 6 months earlier, sparring with his well-meaning but emotionally inert father Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) are time worn, their words seem realistic, not so written.

This is generally true for most exchanges in the movie, which follows the Mee family, including 7-year old Maggie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), as they move into a ramshackle old house, far away from the city and its memories of the deceased matriarch.  Benjamin loves the homestead at first sight, but then learns that on the property is an abandoned zoo, complete with staff (animal and human). This includes head keeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), a potential love interest who spends every waking hour tending to her animals and indeed delivers an impassioned line about having to shovel tiger shit.

The cliches abound.  There's a scene with Dylan, entrusted to shutting the lights in a barn, who can't help but peek into a crate filled with exotic snakes.  He of course forgets to lock the box.  There's also a mildly hissable villain on hand, Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins) a meticulous inspector who delivers acid tongued retorts and earns the near violent wrath of the zoo's carpenter, Peter (Angus Macfadyen). A bear escapes and wanders a neighborhood.  An aged tiger, on his last legs, is argued over as to whether to be put down. Benjamin nearly goes bankrupt keeping the zoo afloat.

But I didn't care about the nitpicks.  When a film has a heart as big as WE BOUGHT A ZOO, it is nearly impossible not to be disarmed. Crowe may be coasting a bit with this project, but his screenplay (co-written by Aline Brosh McKenna) is (unlike many "family" films) never patronizing or insulting to its viewers. Predictable, yes, but the characters are allowed to be intelligent, even if at times their nobility and cuteness threaten to turn the movie into a sapfest. My main beef is that the film is somewhat overlong, but honestly there is little I would change. The performers are all fine.  The human ones as well.

It's nice to be able to recommend an all-ages film that earns your time.  Plus, the director works in many cool tunes for the soundtrack (and a score by Jónsi, lead singer of Sigur Rós).  It wouldn't be a Crowe film without them.

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