December 24, 2011

Movie Review: We Bought a Zoo

Well, it's no Zookeeper. I guess that is a fact we can be proud of, although at time it feels like a related film. The big difference between Zookeeper and We Bought a Zoo is that in the latter the animals don't talk. Of course, there are other differences but this is a major one. Another movie of recent vintage that came to mind while watching this movie was The Descendants. The first pair have the animals in common, the other pairing shows films that feature a big Hollywood star playing a father who is struggling to raise two young children in the aftermath of the untimely death of their respective wives. The problem is that while all three of these films are good (to wildly varying degrees), they all have flaws that ultimately hold them down.

The movie on hand here is We Bought a Zoo. This is a sweet natured tale that is based on a true story of a family in England. Here the reality has been adjusted by co-writer/director Cameron Crowe by moving it to Southern California and reformulating it into a formulaic exercise where sentiment and good will is sprinkled throughout in a predictable fashion without any real consideration for character.

You know, this is not a bad movie so much as it is one that feels like a paint by number exercise. This movie struck me as a good one for an outing with the family, it has some good actors, a decently involving story, and it is unoffensive. It will make you smile (even if you want it to be a little something more). Coming from Cameron Crowe, a man who has made some great films in the past (look no further than Almost Famous) but seems to be slipping somewhat as this is his most tepid release to date (well, that might still be Elizabethtown, the jury is still out). It is just that everything that happens here feels inevitable, there is no real drama or surprises to be had, you pretty much see everything as it comes.

Anyway, the story picks up a scant few months after the death of Benjamin Mee's wife. Benjamin is a reporter who has spent his career going on all manner of adventures to write about, now he is on one he is completely unprepared for. He has no idea how to connect with his children, mourn the loss of his wife, or move on with life. Following the expulsion from school of his son, Dylan, Benjamin decides it is time for a change and begins looking for a new home. The search leads them to a home in the country that has plenty of land and seems perfect. The kicker is that it is a zoo... literally.

The Mee family moves in, inherits a group of zookeepers, who run the gamut of the doesn't realize how pretty she is all business head zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) to a hard drinking Scotsman named Peter (Angus Macfadyen) to a guy whose character is defined by always having a Capucian monkey on his shoulder at all times (Patrick Fugit, star of Almost Famous). It is clear that Kelly and Benjamin will eventually share a kiss and to even things out the cast includes Elle Fanning as a farmgirl who has a crush on Dylan. To complete the formula and introduce a way to manufacture crises is John Michael Higgins as a hard nosed inspector who relishes his anal retentive ways.

Heart and emotional moments are sprinkled liberally throughout the film, from the precociousness of young Rosie, to the equating of an old lion to a dead wife, plus the trials of running a zoo with no knowledge. It works on the surface, but it seems to pass over the moments that could take it to the next level. It is almost like they were intentionally trying to make a family friendly movie rather than one that touches on familial issues in a friendly fashion. In short, it could have used a little more development, make the characters mean more than what formula calls for.

The cast is good and it is genial enough, just do not expect to much from it.

Mildly Recommended.

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