Cameron Crowe was probably my first favourite director. My burgeoning interest in cinema was nurtured by films like Say Anything and Singles, and my entire 1000 plus title library of albums can be blamed, largely, on Almost Famous flicking a switch and giving me a fascination for music. This being the case I was crushed when, in 2005, Crowe delivered Elizabethtown, which I despised from first frame to last. In my review of the time (I’ve not seen it since) I said “…it feels like a film student trying to make a Cameron Crowe film and failing miserably” and that “…it’s SO bad that I can’t imagine ever approaching a new Cameron Crowe film with the same excited optimism I had for this again”. So it’s safe to say that, despite his recent, solid, documentary Pearl Jam 20, I approached Crowe’s first narrative film in seven years with no little trepidation.
We Bought a Zoo finds Crowe at his best… and at his worst. Everything that defines him as a filmmaker is here, but where he used to mix colours so precisely he seems now to daub them, making the mixture less nuanced and satisfying. However, that’s not to say that there aren’t wonderful things in this film.
Crowe and co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna have changed – read Hollywoodised – many of the specifics of the real life story of Benjamin Mee (played by Matt Damon), who moved with his family to a zoo in Dartmoor, which would have been shut down and most of the animals killed had they not bought it. The film moves the story to America, gives Mee children who are different ages to his real kids, and shows them buying the zoo after the death of Mee’s wife (actually she passed away three months into the project). What they do seem to have kept though is the heart of the story; the strange adventure that Mee embarked on, and the struggle to bring it stuttering to life, and that centre, that heart, is a great fit for Cameron Crowe.
With his dialogue, Crowe has often exhibited a talent for earnest emotion, and there is certainly much of this on show in We Bought a Zoo. The film is often at its best with the zoo and the struggle to get it ready for a pre-opening inspection in the background, and the focus on Mee and his children. Here the kids are 14 year old Dylan (Colin Ford), who has been acting out since his Mother’s death and 7 year old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), whose wide-eyed excitement on their first visit motivates Mee into buying the zoo. The relationships between Mee and his children are well drawn, and Damon is effective and affecting as a Dad struggling to cope after losing his wife. Late in the film, in conversation with head zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johannson), Mee tells her that his kids are the biggest trigger for him to miss his Wife, it’s a nice conversation, well written by Crowe and McKenna, beautifully played by Damon, but we hardly need it, because that’s been obvious throughout in the way Damon plays his role.
The kids are good too, particularly Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who manages to make her precocious and cute character entirely, relentlessly charming without being cloying. Thomas Haden Church is also effective as Mee’s caring, if skeptical, brother. He also scores a lot of the best (and a couple of the worst) lines. The rest of the characters are rather more sketchily drawn. Johannson has the most to do, and she’s okay, but I’ve never really been a fan and her work here didn’t do a lot to win me over. The character feels underwritten, but Johannson did little to bring her to life for me, and her relationship (and chemistry) with Damon is rather lacking. The rest of the zookeepers all feel like one joke characters, some of those jokes are good (Angus MacFadyen scores as a keeper who absolutely hates the park inspector), but they always feel like cogs in a dramatic machine rather than people working at a zoo. The exception is Elle Fanning, who has a small part as Johannson’s 13 year old neice who falls for Dylan. I’m a huge fan of Fanning’s, and even though her part is short and underwritten this again demonstrates why; she simply seems incapable of being false on screen.
Unfortunately the good is very much balanced with the bad here. For all the great writing and all the – for want of a better description – Croweisms that work, there are some clunkingly bad passages here too. The final scene (and a couple of other flashbacks) are horribly corny. This feeling is often heightened by the (ab)use of a beautiful score by Jonsi of Sigur Ros. On its own, this film’s soundtrack is stunning; I want to buy and wallow in the album, and Crowe’s song choices are as great as ever, but at times the film becomes little more than a sickly sugary sweet music video (particularly in a flashback montage, another of Crowe’s utterly superfluous and cloying additions). It made sense to have Singles and Almost Famous feel like music videos from time to time, but music is not embedded in this story and these characters lives in that way, so here it undermines the drama by essentially yelling at us about how we should feel, when the performances are already doing a perfectly good job of leading us there. Crowe slathers the movie in music to such a degree that he takes away from both the movie and the music.
On the whole, We Bought a Zoo is far from a bad film, but Crowe isn’t firing on all cylinders here, I wish he’d trusted his story and his actors more, because a lot of the time his directorial choices got in the way of my enjoyment of the film as a whole. It’s a nice film, a charming film, and, yes, an entertaining film, but I can’t see it resonating with me down the line the way that Say Anything… Singles, Almost Famous and Fast Times all have and continue to.