Using every wholesome symbol and cliché in American film language, We Bought a Zoo is an unapologetic attempt to garner sympathy towards the largest available audience. Dismissing art for kitsch, the film is a mindless stroll through a predictable and convenient plot despite its real-life basis. Director Cameron Crowe, who has accumulated a long list of iconic images and quotable lines with Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous, seems to have lost the momentum with this recent effort.
Six months after the death of his wife, Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is struggling in the suburbs. The newspaper he works for wants him to take milder gigs compared to the dangerous assignments he is used to. His son Dylan (Colin Ford) is having behavioral problems at school, and women are swooning after Benjamin in droves (yeah a tough life indeed). In need of change, Benjamin purchases a dilapidated zoo using investment funds left from his deceased wife. A bare-bones group of employees have remained loyal to the struggling zoo and are adamant about getting the zoo ready for a grand re-opening. However, health issues with the animals and a looming inspection by the demanding Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins), who is loathed by the zoo’s staff, puts the zoo’s future in jeopardy.
Despite being adapted from the book of the same name, We Bought a Zoo has a formulaic narrative that never deters from expected clichés. Of course, Benjamin is going to have difficulties assimilating into life in a zoo, his son will resist the change, and his daughter will love every moment. Do not forget the romantic interests for Benjamin and Dylan in Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) and Lily (Elle Fanning) respectively, both attractive Caucasian blondes. Benjamin’s brother (Thomas Haden Church) is the classic contrarian who thinks Benjamin is off his rocker. The common internal and external struggles are all present, ready to evoke family-friendly chills and thrills. It would have been nice if the film’s production studio would have included their own anal-retentive inspector analogous to Walter Ferris to ensure a better product.
For a knowledgeable film goer, the similarities between We Bought a Zoo and Fierce Creatures are too hard to ignore. Granted, the latter is a comment on corporate marketing at the expense of living creatures and We Bought A Zoo is a grassroots re-building of a zoo and a family, the connections between the characters are incredibly similar. While the film is based on a real-life adventure, it is fluffed up for the big screen to drive the film from scene to scene. Pet owners will sympathize with the subplot involving the aging Spar, a Bengal tiger, a plot that, based on context, parallels Benjamin’s wife’s death.
No Cameron Crowe film is complete without a compact disc worth of classic rock songs, of which, have a combined licensing cost matching Damon’s performance fees. Crowe’s use of popular rock in Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky were iconic, but the soundtrack in We Bought a Zoo never fits with any of the imagery. These classic songs create artificial connections to meager scenes and supports the argument that the film is forcefully and insincerely formulaic.
We Bought a Zoo is a low-risk product that was released just prior to Christmas 2011 to target the increased holiday traffic. Targeted towards families, the film does have a couple legitimate laughs, but it takes every available opportunity to use adorable animals, children, and predictable love interests to encourage the audience to swoon. Early in the film, Benjamin’s character is told that the animals live in enclosures and not cages. We Bought a Zoo is caged, unable to sprawl out and develop into the inspirational story it was meant to be.