We Bought a Zoo is too lighthearted and silly for its own good, gaily adapted from a memoir about the real life Benjamin Mee and his purchase and renovation of a dilapidated zoo. Death, grief and recovery make their way into the screenplay, but in sadly small doses. Due to Cameron Crowe’s name being behind the writing and directing, there was some initial Oscar buzz, but the only time the film is even slightly awards-worthy palatable is when characters argue. The script isn’t demanding enough for the actors and many of the roles seem miscast. Damon is watchable (the rest of the cast is not, save for Thomas Haden Church), but depth, poignancy, and serious drama elude every part. Even the momentary romances appear forced and inauthentic. The worst offense, however, is the hopelessly contrived conclusion, which screams of fairy-tale goofiness. How fantastical does a movie about the renovation of a rundown zoo need to be?
Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) lost his wife to a sudden illness six months ago. He’s slowly recovering, but his teenaged son Dylan (Colin Ford) isn’t coping so well. The boy has become withdrawn, resorting to drawing dark, morbid pictures in his sketchbook, getting suspended at school, and finally get expelled for stealing. Benjamin’s young daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) is too little for the tragedy to be fully realized. Benjamin has always been an adventurer, fueled by his career as a journalist, but finally decides to quit his job and find a new home. He’s tired of the pity he receives from everyone around him.
After looking at countless houses, he comes upon the perfect one. Unfortunately, it’s attached to a fully functioning zoo – open to the public until two years prior, before the state took it over waiting for a prospective buyer. With more than 40 exotic species living on the premises, Benjamin is ready for a new adventure (highlighted by tranquilizing a 750-lb North American Grizzly), even if his son just wants to stay with his friends in the city. The facility comes staffed with various employees, including zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), her underage relative Lily (Elle Fanning) who forwardly pursues Dylan for romantic companionship, accountant Rhonda (Carla Gallo), and animal wranglers Robin (Patrick Fugit), Peter MacCready (Angus Macfadyen), and a few others. Benjamin hopes to reopen the zoo for business by July 7th, which gives them just barely enough time to pass an inspection by caricatured, over-the-top nemesis Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins). Welcome to the live animal maintenance world. Cue Cameron Crowe’s expectedly ever-present soundtrack.
The inclusion of J.B. Smoove purely for comic relief seems unnecessary, especially since Thomas Haden Church as brother Duncan Mee eats up his screentime in another completely comical, larger bit, assuming a part that Jeff Goldblum has been adopting as of late. He’s the voice of reason, a calming, benevolent, charitable, compassionate wisdom, and big-brother sarcasm when appropriate. His character makes sense of the dysfunctional family and monetary chaos when animal humor and teenage flirtation doesn’t provide enough heart. And then there’s Rosie, the disgustingly obligatory cute kid, who chimes in with sentiments keen beyond her years, when times are tough and adults can’t seem to verbally straighten out the predicaments. A camera cut to her plump cheeks and wide eyes is sure to win the audience over when the story steers into a dull corner. It’s all particularly essential when Benjamin refuses to take his situation seriously, even when the crew of colorful, oddball characters attempts to ground themselves in the direness of their generic plight.
– The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)