Cameron Crowe is in desperate need of a winner, given that he hasn’t made a good feature film in over a decade; his last being the uneven if skilfully constructed Vanilla Sky. Though his recent work as a documentarian has seen him fare well, his last venture into features, Elizabethtown, proved disappointing, even troubling for some, making one question whether the legendary former-Rolling Stone writer had lost his spark.
The unapologetically schmaltzy mulch of We Bought a Zoo will however do little to restore Crowe’s reputation to his fans. It is a film pitched at the most patient of family audiences, where the kids can smile at cute animals and, getting a break from taking them to see animation, the parents get to sit through a family film with more adult issues at work.
We Bought a Zoo is based on Benjamin Mee’s memoir, and begins with Ben (Matt Damon) still grieving the untimely loss of his wife while trying to care for his kids, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and Dylan (Colin Ford). Everything changes when while browsing for a new home, he finds his dream locale. The catch? It’s a zoo, and driven by his need to bring the family closer together, he and zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) decide to try and fix the zoo up so that they get to keep it.
This preposterous premise is the sort which would have been unequivocally laughed off our screens were it not based on true events. Buying into the enormous conceit of its premise – that anyone, let alone a grieving husband with no experience in animal care or zoo maintenance, would dare tackle this undertaking – is therefore less of a challenge, but buying into Cameron Crowe’s hermetically sealed, saccharine treatment of this story is still an enormous one in of itself.
This is the sort of story in which characters are ungainly optimists, refusing to admit defeat in a way that evokes not steely determination but a creepy, inhuman quality. Matt Damon is, as you would expect, perfectly good in the lead role, but the speedy, unfussed way in which Crowe’s script rushes through the stickier elements of Ben’s journey undoes a lot of his work. Coming off best is unquestionably Thomas Haden Church as Ben’s older brother and the only character who seems remotely aware of the plot’s insanity, as incredulous inside the story as we are watching it.
We never really feel the struggle which would have made this both a potent family tonic and a compelling existential journey; instead what should be giant, dramatically satisfying obstacles are minor inconveniences, and Ben makes his way through the laundry list of logistical problems with a firm smile on his face, aside from one superbly-acted argument scene between him and his son.
It seems perfectly happy being scarcely adequate and little else; the daughter is cute and loves the animals, Crowe shoehorns in some of his favourite music in case we aren’t sure what we’re meant to feel, and then it all culminates just as you would expect, oddly smug and confident in its stature as a robust family pic.
There’s plenty of enthusiasm on the part of the cast, but the script is fashioned in a way that will appease families determined to have a good time, and I imagine, few else. Everything is too easy, the characters are poorly developed, and given how much emotion Crowe seems to want to wring from the drama, he oddly doesn’t delve into Ben’s disconnect from his dead wife and his kids with anywhere near enough depth.
The shameless manipulation on display here makes one wonder where Cameron Crowe’s talent has gone.
We Bought A Zoo is out now in UK cinemas.