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Non-Review Review: We Bought a Zoo

The biggest problem facing We Bought a Zoo is that it can’t ever decide how serious a family drama it wants to be. It follows a family recovering from the loss of their mother by purchasing a zoo and attempting to renovate it, and it never finds a healthy balance between the shamelessly upbeat montage-set-to-classic-pop “live your crazy dreams!” feel-good fun and the heavier subject of a family finding piece. The result is a movie that often feels a little toosweet and a little too earnest at the same time, and never manages to mix the two tones with a great deal of success.

Not quite out of the park...

In fairness to director Cameron Crowe, he seems to handle the light stuff relatively well. There are lots of sequences set to familiar songs designed to convince us to feel a certain way. There are animals populating the zoo whose temperaments all speak to the family in question – there’s a depressed, caged-in bear and an ageing, dying tiger. Jónsi’s soundtrack is quick to prod us to feel a certain way at a given moment, trying to overwhelm the audience instead of convincing us.

And, truth be told, it’s not a terrible approach. Films are, after all, about emotional manipulation and convincing the audience to feel a particular way. Crowe has a great eye, and the story is simple enough. It’s almost possible to buy the emotional shallowness of the tale as part of its snazzy appeal – stick it on with the older members of the family and enjoy it. It won’t offend anyone. We Bought a Zoo spends most of its time being this decidedly light and fluffy tale of triumph over adversity.

Keep us poster-ed...

It’s a very silly world, after all, that the film occupies. Most of the cast are simplistic archetypes. There’s the overly talkative and irritatingly optimistic real estate agent. There’s the snooty zoo inspector who exists to through the opening of the zoo into doubt. The antics of the staff of the zoo border on reckless, getting into cages with lions, allowing kids to work with dangerous animals, and indifferent to an escape of a shipment of exotic snakes.

For most of the film, it seems like there are no consequences for what unfolds. It feels like the movie is as light and insubstantial as a tiny chocolate wafer. And, truth be told, it’s very effective at that. Crowe is more than competent as a director, even if he might seem to struggle as a writer, and Matt Damon has that sort of effortless movie-star charm that can generally win over audiences. That’s fine, and, while it doesn’t make the movie exceptional, it isn’t a fatal flaw. It could easily have been an enjoyable and forgettable movie.

Tiger's tale...

However, what really kills the film is the way that the script occasionally tries to give us heavier moments to balance against the light. It’s clearly intended to add a bit of depth and nuance to a film, but it just makes the whole thing wildly uneven. The family’s son draws some pretty dark artwork and steals from school, indicating severe problems. The father runs the family into the ground, financially speaking, jeopardising the security of his children. These would be fine by themselves too, but they don’t blend into a nice cocktail.

So the family’s money woes, presented as tangible and relatable, are resolved by a sappy “love conquers all” deus ex machina. It seems strange to watch a film where a young boy’s admittedly unsettling artwork is treated as a more serious problem than the escape of a grizzly bear into what looks like an urban community. The bear’s brief adventure is played almost as a comedy interlude, rather than playing into the heavier stuff the movie wants to address about how a family functions – despite the fact that it seems our intrepid patriarch has placed his children in fairly serious danger (with animals escaping and bringing them close to fairly dangerous creatures), which you’d imagine would trump “not listening” on the “bad parenting” department.

A wild time...

All of which feels slightly frustrating because the film isn’t fundamentally broken. Matt Damon gives a fairly solid performance, with a wildly uneven script. Scarlett Johansson is unfortunately fairly wooden, but she’s anchored with a relatively bland character – given an exposition-filled rant about how crap her life is. Damon and Johansson don’t seem to have any tangible chemistry, which makes the movie’s romantic subplot feel more than a little awkward. That said, Thomas Hayden Church is solid in the role of the lead’s older brother, although I am a bit disappointed that he seems to be relegated to the mandatory quirky supporting character roles these days.

However, the children actually handled themselves quite well. Part of me wonders if the film would have worked better from their point of view, a conceit that might have made the sweetness and the shallowness seem like clever creative decisions rather than the result of a bumpy script. Elle Fanning doesn’t have anything to work with here, so her performance isn’t as polished as in Super 8, but she’s more than solid. Maggie Elizabeth Jones is remarkable in the role of the family’s daughter, and she actually does a wonderful job making the overly-saccharine script bearable with solid comic relief.

Helping the kid deal with his inner Damon...

We Bought a Zoo is a disappointing film, if only because I get the sense that either of the two approaches found within could have worked. It could have been presented as a shallow feel-good looks-and-sounds-beautiful modern-day fairy tale or it could have been a quirky off-beat family-in-crisis drama. Unfortunately, it tries to do both, and ends up doing neither very well.

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