Movie review: We Bought a Zoo


Cameron Crowe is one of those directors who just feels like he's been around the directing block for a while now, and is one of those names that you just know. You may even see on the posters for his films "from the director 'Jerry Maguire'", just to remind us of how good a director he is.

Here's the thing – this is only Crowe's seventh gig as a director since his first (Say Anything... in 1989). It's also his first film in six years. As a comeback film, which this effort really has to be considered to be, Crowe has returned with something of a Disney-fied offering.

Challenges are not something that journalist Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) shies away from; his job sees him being sent to all kinds of exciting places around the world in search of a great story.

His priorities change dramatically however when his wife dies, leaving him in charge of their two young children. He decides that they all need a change in lives, particularly his son Dylan (Colin Ford) who gets kick out of school for his odd behaviour. So the Mee family began their search for a new home.

After a while they seemingly find it; it's a little run down sure, but it's in the middle of a pretty impressive plot of land. To Benjamin, it fits the bill perfectly. But there's a caveat attached: whoever buys the house has to take on the responsibility of the attached business. As it turns out, the business just so happens to be a bone fide zoo.

As outrageous a decision it may sound, Benjamin decides that this run-down zoo could be the perfect thing to make his family happy. Who wouldn't love living in a zoo? Well, his son Dylan for one. So Benjamin soon finds himself juggling the oddest of roles, that of a father and that of a zoo owner.

The only thing that prevents this film from being a complete Disney effort is that the animals don't talk. And in a sense, it's a shame they don't.

This isn't the type of film that you would normally think Crowe would be interested in, but it seems that even directors aren't getting it all their own way these days. Just ask John Dahl; he helmed the impressive The Last Seduction but now finds himself directing TV shows like The Vampire Diaries.

Crowe certainly keeps the cutesy cutesy stuff to a minimum. The focus of this story appears to be the relationship that Damon's character has with his family, and the zoo element is secondary. But although the child actors involved don't embarrass themselves, the human side of the story is just too flaky.

Of course, being a film about owning a zoo, it can rely on the animal side of things for laughs and hilarity. But Crowe strangely under uses the animals at his disposal. In fact, they don't just take a back seat, they're locked up in the boot out of sight to everyone for the majority of time. Which begs the question: why make a family film about a family taking over a zoo if you don't want to involve the animals?

Maybe Crowe was sticking to the source material, based as it is on the memoirs of the real Benjamin Mee. But you can't help but feel that by putting the animals on the back burner (not literally, although a film about a zoo that barbecued its animals would have been a far more original proposition) the film is all about Mee, Mee, Mee.

There's also the obvious relationship between Damon and Scarlett Johansson, but their on-screen courtship is all too predictable and ultimately doesn't add anything vaguely interesting to the film.

Matt Damon is sturdy and dependable throughout, but really, haven't we all seen enough of the nice Matt Damon? That's right, we have.

Although clearly aimed as a family film, there's nowhere near enough here, despite the film's overly long length of two hours, to keep any family member that entertained. Adults will soon tire of all the relationship stuff, while youngsters will no doubt be disappointed that there's nowhere near enough animal action going on, particularly for a film that has the word 'zoo' in the title.

If this is Crowe's idea of a strong comeback, it may be some time again before we see him directing anything worth watching. There's always TV of course...

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