Wednesday, January 23, 2013

We Bought a Zoo

Based on the memoir by Benjamin Mee, We Bought a Zoo is the story about a widower and his two children starting over as the man buys a zoo in the hopes to revive it as well as do something that matters again. Directed by Cameron Crowe and screenplay by Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna, the film is an exploration into how Mee did something impulsive while growing to care for his new world with his children. Starring Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Elle Fanning, Patrick Fugit, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Angus Macfadyen, Carla Gallo, and John Michael Higgins. We Bought a Zoo is a superb yet engaging film from Cameron Crowe.

The film is essentially a dramatization into how Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) impulsively buys a zoo as a way to start over after the death of his wife six months earlier and as a way to give his two kids a new life. There, he deals with the fact that the zoo needs to be renovated as it’s costing him a lot of money prompting those who work at the zoo to deal that he might leave and everything will be gone. For Mee who is an adventurer, he ponders whether to salvage what he’s lost or to save the zoo that he has bought and has grown to care for. It’s a film that explores a man who is dealing with grief and uncertainty where he does something impulsive in the hopes that it can help his children and also do something new with his life.

The screenplay by Cameron Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna definitely explores this man’s impulsive decision as life after his wife’s death hasn’t been easy. He quits his job as an adventurous journalist before he’s about to be laid off while his 14-year old son Dylan (Colin Ford) just got expelled as he’s spending lot of his time drawing macabre images. For Benjamin, he has no idea what to do where he goes house-hunting with his 7-year old daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) where they stumble upon a home with the zoo as it’s backyard. While Rosie is excited about living with a zoo, the moody Dylan isn’t as he becomes more withdrawn.

In buying this zoo, Mee has to deal with the fact that it’s been unused for 2 years as those who are at the zoo are the ones taking care for it as they’re paid by the state. Leading the staff is a young zookeeper named Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) who is baffled into why Mee would buy a zoo with no knowledge of how to run things or to take care of animals. Yet, Mee counts on Kelly and the staff to help him as well as the services of his older brother Duncan who is baffled into why Benjamin would do something like this. Still, there’s lots of trials and tribulations that occur that would push Benjamin to the breaking point as there’s those that doubt him and even Benjamin himself. Yet, it would take something for Benjamin to realize that he can’t give up though it would raise issues if he’s still doing the right thing.

The script does allow Mee to be flawed as even Mee himself knows he could screw things up. Yet, he is also dealing with the fact that his son has been moody where Dylan feels like he can’t do anything right as he is also trying to deal with the affections of Kelly’s cousin Lily (Elle Fanning). The script does allow Crowe and McKenna to explore the dynamics of family as well as the loss that Benjamin and Dylan are still dealing with. Notably as it relates to Benjamin’s concern for a Bengal tiger named Spar who is ailing where Kelly tells Benjamin that he has to do something or else things will get worse much to Benjamin’s frustrations.

Crowe’s direction has him trying to find a balance between something that is funny but also heartfelt and dramatic without going overboard. Though not everything is perfect, Crowe does allow the film to be told as it slowly tells Mee’s approach to become part of the world of the zoo where he learns how to talk to animals. The humor that Crowe provides is very light-hearted as it includes some very funny scenes involving the zoo’s carpenter Peter MacCready (Angus Macfadyen) who has a grudge towards strict zoo inspector Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins). Crowe also keeps a lot of the compositions to be straightforward while employing some exotic imagery that is obviously a nod to the visual style of Terrence Malick.

Crowe also knows how to put his actors in a dramatic situation where he knows when it’s time for the heavy drama. The one aspect of the film that doesn’t work and that is unnecessary are scenes involving Mee seeing images of his late wife. It’s a dramatic crutch that really drags the film a bit as it includes an ending that is overdrawn. It’s Crowe feeling that he needs to establish more of Mee’s grief as a way to explain things when he doesn’t need to. Despite that flaw in the storyline, Crowe is able to keep things engaging as he does end up making a very enjoyable film that explores loss and the chance to start all over again.

Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto does amazing work with the film‘s very colorful and lush photography for many of the film‘s daytime scenes while using some more low-key colors for the scenes at night and in the rain as well as the scenes inside the bar that the zoo staff hangs out at. Editor Mark Livolsi does terrific work with the editing to play out some of the humor and dramatic moments of the film. Production designer Clay A. Griffith, along with set decorator Wayne Shepherd and supervising art director Peter Borck, does great work with the sets from the look of the animal enclosures for the zoo as well as the look of Mee‘s home and the bar that the zoo staff hang out at.

Costume designer Deborah Lynn Scott does nice work with the costumes as it‘s mostly casual to play up the personalities of the characters. Sound editors Mildred Iatrou Morgan and Ai-Ling Lee do superb work with the sound to create the layer of sound work in some scenes including a key conversation between Mee and Kelly. The film’s music by Jon Thor Birgisson aka Jonsi is fantastic for it’s dreamy yet exotic score led by Birgisson’s vocals and serene musical accompaniment as it also includes a piece from his band Sigur Ros. The film’s soundtrack includes an array of music from Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, Temple of the Dogs, Neil Young with Crazy Horse, Wilco, Echo and the Bunnymen, solo work from Pearl Jam members Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready, the Isley Brothers, Otis Rush, Bon Iver, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers that is just fun to listen to.

The casting by Gail Levin is brilliant for the ensemble that is created for the film as it features some memorable small roles from Kym Whitley as a Home Depot clerk that Benjamin and Rosie meets, Stephanie Szostak as Benjamin’s late wife Katherine, Peter Reigert as Benjamin’s old boss, J.B. Smoove as the real estate agent who sells Mee the house next to the zoo, and Carla Gallo as the zoo’s bookkeeper Rhonda. Patrick Fugit is very good as zoo’s craftsman Robin who helps Mee talk to animals as he has a pet monkey named Crystal. John Michael Higgins is terrific as the very snide inspector Walter Ferris who is a stickler for making sure things are in order as he annoys everyone. Angus Macfadyen is great as the very brash but helpful carpenter Peter MacCready who has a grudge towards Ferris as he is very loyal to the zoo.

Maggie Elizabeth Jones is a total delight as Rosie as she says some very funny things while being the one person in the film who has together as adores the zoo. Colin Ford is wonderful as the troubled Dylan who has a hard time dealing with his own issues as well as the presence of Lily as he has no idea how to talk to someone like her. Elle Fanning is amazing as Lily as a young farm girl who is intrigued by Dylan while doing whatever to help around the zoo and such. Thomas Haden Church is excellent as Mee’s brother Duncan who is baffled by what his younger brother is doing where he eventually helps out and realizes what can be done.

Scarlett Johansson is marvelous as Kelly as she is a zookeeper who knows what to do while admitting to having a very pathetic social life as she is just making sure things go well as it’s a very different role for Johansson. Notably as she doesn’t play a sexual being in favor of a real young woman as it’s definitely one of her great performances where she also has some superb chemistry with the film’s lead in Matt Damon. Damon’s performance is definitely fantastic for the way he plays up Benjamin Mee’s uncertainty as well as him impulsiveness where Damon gets to be funny but also dramatic as it’s a performance that really shows the kind of range and enthusiasm Damon has in a meaty role like this.

We Bought a Zoo is an excellent and heartwarming from Cameron Crowe. Featuring a wonderful ensemble cast led by Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, the film is definitely a film that the family could enjoy while not taking itself too seriously. While it does have its flaws, it is still a film that is compelling for the way it explores impulsive decisions and taking on something adventurous. In the end, We Bought a Zoo is a remarkable film from Cameron Crowe.

Cameron Crowe Films: (Say Anything) - (Singles) - (Jerry Maguire) - Almost Famous - (Vanilla Sky) - (Elizabethtown) - The Union - Pearl Jam 20 - Aloha

© thevoid99 2013


Dan O. said...

It’s cheesy and overly schmaltzy beyond belief but Cameron Crowe and the rest of the cast seem to be having a lot of fun, which basically comes onto us. Good review Steve.

thevoid99 said...

Thanks. I agree that it is a flawed film but certainly way, way, way better than the atrocity that was Elizabethtown.

ruth said...

I've got to admit that I thought the premise was intriguing when I first saw the trailer. But I'm not too keen on Scarlett Johansson in general and the reviews I read that it's over-sentimental makes me avoid this one. I might give it a shot one day based on your review though.

thevoid99 said...

@ruth-It does have moments of sentimentality but Crowe does wisely keep it at a minimum though there's some parts of the film that is unnecessary.

Scarlett is actually really good in this. It's a very different role for her where she plays it straight but also gets to be pretty funny. This is actually something that kind of lives up to some of the great films she's been in like Lost in Translation and Ghost World.