We Bought a Zoo (2011)

Directed by Cameron Crowe
Written by Aline McKenna & Cameron Crowe

“The purpose of life is to live, not to exist” author Jack London once said, and I tend to agree with him. But I would also say that the purpose of life is the pursuit of joy, pleasure and happiness, a sentiment Thomas Jefferson once famously also shared (although he meant more specifically slavery when he said happiness, but it has been embraced nonetheless). With that in mind I present to you the Merriam-Webster definition of the word inertia, and please bear with me, I am going somewhere with this. Inertia: A property of matter by which it remains at rest or in uniform motion in the same straight line unless acted upon by some external force. All humans suffer from it, the unfortunate part being the external force, which is ultimately unavoidable. The external force is that which seeks to alter your perfect life, a way of testing your resolve and adaptability. The external force is what makes life’s pursuit of joy, pleasure and happiness such an adventure. Cameron Crowe’s new film We Bought a Zoo is about inertia and that external force.

Based on the memoir of Benjamin Mee, an adventure seeker and former journalist. When Benjamin (Matt Damon) and his son Dylan (Colin Ford) and daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) experience the loss of wife and mother Katherine, they struggle to land back on their feet. Seeking a new beginning at the behest of his brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), Benjamin moves the family from the city to the countryside, where the property they have just bought is in fact a zoo. Teaming with the young zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), the Mees work to restore the zoo and save the animals for whom it provides care. But with the recent past weighing on Benjamin, the question becomes whether or not he will be able to get off the ground for his, and the zoo’s, new start.

The plot of the film, while not completely unimportant, is fairly pedestrian and the cliches are easily noticed. There is no doubt where the film will end up, but to quote another great adventurer, the late photographer Dan Eldon, “the journey is the destination” for this film. The cast of characters is too strong and sympathetic to resist for me personally. Benjamin is a man who had everything with his beautiful wife Katherine and a job that allowed him to experience his adventures. But with her death, he has been adjusted from his uniform motion and left without a direction. Matt Damon portrays him with a certain subtle tenderness that is irresistible, especially when coupled with the adorable Maggie Elizabeth Jones. Colin Ford also impresses as the son of his father Dylan Mee, wrestling with the demons of what it means to cope, love, and be loved.

But while the performances are all good, with perhaps the exception of John Michael Higgins as the USDA inspector, it is Crowe’s direction and screenwriting which strike the right chords. Crowe is a favorite of mine for his ability to tell great stories, using an abundance of genuine heart, and incorporating great music to fit with the tone. His music selection, while still top notch, is less noticeable here (there is no Tom Cruise belting “Free Fallin'” [Jerry Maguire] or a broken band re-bonding over a rendition of “Tiny Dancer” [Almost Famous]). But what Crowe did manage to do is make me vulnerable to the story and characters, which is not always an easy thing to do. And when I saw “make vulnerable” I mean I connected and sympathized in such a way as I broke out in tears, and when the waterworks came, they easily continued their flow with each passing touch of passion, tenderness, and vulnerability depicted on screen. There was a certain specificity towards memory and connection with people that struck a chord inside me and made me think of all the people I hold dear in my life. It may sound a bit manipulative, but in reality it was all sentiment, and done really well.

Mee experiences hardship, but it is his passion and pursuit of joy and pleasure which pushes him forward. Kelly, the zookeeper is shown with an equal amount of passion for what she does. It is their bond and the bond of everyone in the film which propels the story forward and makes the film soar like it does. I have heard reviews that say Damon elevates the material, which I disagree with. Crowe elevates the material above the cliche and expected and crafts another emotional, sentimental gem which utilizes its great cast to bring to life a love story, a story of sorrow, a story of passion, and a story of joy. There are a lot of thematic elements in the film which cause most people to flock to the words cheesy or corny, which may be accurate, but there is also a reason they are called cheesy and corny, and when they are done really well, there is absolutely nothing wrong with them. Most of the time when I sit down to write a review I am trying to communicate an answer to the question why should you see the film. This time I have a simple response: why not?

***1/2 – Great

One comment

  • Waterworks, eh? I don't cry much at movies anymore, it takes something pretty special to get a tear out of me, but that doesn't mean movies don't affect me. I'd like to see this movie. It has one of those ludicrous stories that one either accepts or rejects outright. I feel like accepting it.

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