Perhaps this film’s poster, and it’s title therein, evokes in your mind images of animals being gross, crazy and charming for a series of increasingly cheap gags – images akin to say those in Kevin James’s “The Zookeeper“, for those unfortunate enough to be able to imagine that film – that assumption actually couldn’t be further from the truth and were this film but a little bit further from “The Zookeeper” then it may well have been one of the year’s best; instead though it’s just underrated, perhaps because of the poster, and the title therein.
At one stage during the film Thomas Haden Church’s character utters a line that is utterly out of character, but sums his film up entire: “I like the animals, but I love the people,” he says, and the same goes for Cameron Crowe, the film’s director. Yes there are some cute and cuddly critters and yes they do on occasion get themselves involved in some comedic moments, but for the most part they are not the film’s central focus; few get names and none ever exhibit characteristics that would be out of the ordinary or inconceivable to see in a real zoo, in fact this was all filmed with real animals in a real zoo and the authenticity shows. So don’t let your love of animals, or lack of it, make your decision as to whether or not you see the film.
The factor that you should focus on is this; do you have and or care about families? If so, apply here because “We Bought A Zoo” is not the story of the zoo and it’s inhabitants but rather the one of it’s owners, in this case the royal ‘We’; the only beasts that it is bemused by are human beings. The other major mistake in that initial assumption is that this film is a comedy, and a cheap kids one at that; I say again, you could not be any further from the truth. Not only is “zoo” not playing the animals for laughs, but it is playing the people for pathos; telling as it is the true to life story of a single father family that makes a major move in order to help move on from their recent loss.
Now the trailer tells you that, but it doesn’t tell you just how major a moment that is. The loss of their wife and mother is not a cliche contrivance that occurs only to drive the characters towards their fascinating destination – catastrophic car crashes are so often the cause of children’s self-discovery in films, but they so rarely play a role greater than that of the initial engine – instead the film focuses solely on this issue and how it effects the family during this peculiar adventure. Yes, for the whole running time, not just the obligatory three quarter mark moment of darkness and despair. This admittedly makes for something of a depressing watch, but never overly so. The darkness, like the animals, feels authentic and true to life; the sorrow is littered intermittently with laughs and for each minute spent wallowing in the wrecked past there is one in which a step is taken forward. It’s a tough balancing act but Crowe does it brilliantly; yes, you’ll cry but you’ll enjoy doing it.
Unfortunately though the rest of the film is not so consummate in its construction and occasionally it seems as if Crowe has slipped off the rope. In particular there are some problems with both the style and the audience, these are connected, steaming as they both do from the movie’s inherent mediocrity. Now that is not a qualitative assessment – no, you’ll have to wait a little while longer before you get that – the film as a whole is not mediocre, it simply feels like it. For example, the style is torn between arty and generic; some moments, like The photo montage, are startlingly stylistic and well differentiated from the expected norm, but for the most part the constant Sigur Ros soundtrack is the most alternative element around.
The script is solid sure, but little more than that; based on Mee’s memoir, which it appears to be accurate to, this is at times the one element that pushes the authenticity too far. The story follows the formula of convenient clichés set out for all family dramas, but within that it is made up of some interesting and unique moments, the most of which are best described as flat. Reality holds the film back in many ways, that authenticity forbids it from ever truly taking off in any more outstanding directions; it is true to life, but life itself is actually kind of boring. There is the introduction of some depth into the script through the use of the animals – finally! – as a metaphor for what the family is feeling, but this is basically too little and too late to redeem the monotony, and don’t even get me started on the speeches that Scarlett has to give.
The in screen technical elements are really much the same, sure Damon is good and the daughter cute without ever being overly precocious like all the other filmic preteens out there; there really are No stand out moments for any of them though, they’re just fine. The zoo crew though are mostly disposable; I have to wonder is Crowe really doing his “Almost Famous” star any real favors by giving him the job of monkey stand? At least it’s a job I guess, which is better than what he’s had otherwise.
So overall i am torn,there are elements and ideas here that i like but they are , for the most part, utterly outnumbered by those that disappoint; the overall film though i found to be fulfilling if not overly fun. The rest of the audience is surely torn too, and herein lies its fatal flaw commercially speaking, the film’s true content is sure to only appeal to an audience of serious adults and disturbed children but they are exactly who will avoid it based on that assumption I pointed out earlier. If though you can somehow get people plastered into seats then they will without a doubt enjoy the experience – kidnap aside -, but that simply isn’t likely to occur, especially given the glut of flashier features available these holidays.