(NEW YORK) — We Bought a Zoo feels like two different movies, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just doesn’t start out being a good thing.
Cameron Crowe is a great storyteller, but it seems clear that the tepid reaction to his previous film, 2005’s Elizabethtown — a very personal film for him by his own admission — shook his confidence. I say that because intentionally or not, our introduction to the Mee family of We Bought a Zoo feels more like you’re briefly meeting some affable friends of a friend at a picnic with 200 other people you haven’t seen in 10 years. What kept me interested in the story is my unwavering faith in Mr. Crowe — and he did not disappoint.
Based on a true story, We Bought a Zoo begins six months after the death of Benjamin Mee’s wife. Played by Matt Damon, Mee struggles with life as a single dad. His adorable seven-year-old daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) is wise and responsible beyond her years but his 14-year-old son, Dylan (Colin Ford), is struggling in the aftermath of his mother’s death. After Dylan is expelled from school, Benjamin decides to quit his job as a journalist and move his family to a new house, for a new beginning.
This part of the movie plays out like a formulaic after-school special, as though Damon and company were acting out a set of instructions from Ikea, not a script co-written and directed by Cameron Crowe. Then comes J.B. Smoove, brilliant on Curb Your Enthusiasm and hilarious in the NFL On Fox commercials, but so miscast here as a fledgling real estate agent showing Benjamin and Rosie Mee homes that it almost destroys the film’s credibility.
Smoove’s Mr. Stevens shows the Mees a broken-down home on 16 acres of land and it’s love at first site for Benjamin. The house offers just the challenge his journalistic and can-do spirit has thirsted for. It’s also a project to distract him from his grief, and a real opportunity to start over. There’s just one problem, as Mr. Stevens reveals: “It’s a zoo!”
The idea of moving into a defunct zoo rather appeals to Mee, but he isn’t convinced until he sees Rosie cavorting with a peacock, telling the bird, “I want to live here. I want to keep you.” With that, ladies and gentlemen, we have our first real moment of the movie.
While Benjamin and Rosie are enthusiastic about their new digs, Dylan has to be dragged to his new home kicking and screaming. Upon their arrival, his consternation is slightly allayed upon seeing, then meeting, Elle Fanning’s Lily, the niece of Scarlett Johansson’s fresh-faced zookeeper, Kelly.
The zoo staff is made up of loveable misfits, the most notable of whom is Robin, well-played by Cameron’s Almost Famous star, Patrick Fugit (who should be getting way more work — hello, Hollywood?). The staff, especially Kelly, is a little leery of Benjamin’s intentions, until they realize Benjamin is enthusiastic about reopening the zoo and helping the animals.
Now we at last move into Crowe’s wheelhouse: relationships between men and women and, in this case, boys and girls. Kelly is falling for Benjamin and Lily is crushing hard on Dylan, but the residue of the men’s grief has blinded them both to it — or, you could say, clogged their emotional arteries. Throw in a dying tiger, a killer scene between Damon and Johansson about the fate of that tiger immediately followed by an explosive argument between Damon and Ford, and our faith has been rewarded: we have been plugged back into the Cameron Crowe Matrix.
Not surprisingly, director and rock journalist Crowe treats us to an incredible soundtrack along our journey, as well as a score supplied by Jónsi, the frontman of the ethereal Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós. Crowe fans will also appreciate his use of “Hunger Strike,” by near-forgotten Pearl Jam precursor band Temple of the Dog.
The first half of We Bought a Zoo scared me. Outside of Benjamin celebrating a moment with Rosie by clanging utensils and saying “Give me some fork” (instead of a fist bump), the film was bereft of Cameron Crowe-esque moments. But again, the second half of We Bought a Zoo is a different story. Crowe gets his mojo back, and we get poignancy, intimacy and humor: advice from Kelly to Dylan (“The secret to talking is listening”); words of encouragement from a father to a son (“Sometimes, all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage, just literally 20 seconds of embarrassing bravery, and I promise you something great will come of it”); or simply a double entendre from a Home Depot clerk reminding Benjamin he left something behind (“Hey mister! Your balls!”).
We Bought a Zoo won’t have you at “hello,” like Crowe’s Jerry Maguire, but be patient: in the end, he will show you the money.
Three-and-a-half out of five stars.
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