Cameron Crowe‘s latest family drama We Bought a Zoo is an off-balance attempt at making something touching and honest. Because of talent like Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, the film has moments of strong character work, but somewhere in the writing or directing the film gets lost and its human connection is substituted for cheap farm jokes and animal laughter.
Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is an adventurer. He’s a writer that’s covered the whole globe and it isn’t until the death of his wife that he feels the need for a new, more personal adventure. His son Dylan (Colin Ford) is coping with the death of his mother by drawing dark and troubled pictures at school and his daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) is stuck in the middle. Benjamin decides that the best way to get over the death of his wife is to relocate himself and his two children to a new house for a new beginning. They land on a piece of property that just so happens to be a zoo, full of animals and handlers.
In an attempt to recreate a new adventure and reconnect his broken ties with his son, Benjamin puts forth all of his effort and money into the zoo, hoping to reopen it on schedule in July and figure out how to get his family back on the right path.
His brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church) stresses that Ben shouldn’t waste his money on this life crisis and that he should simply blow all of his inheritance on a weekend trip to Vegas or something full of women and mistakes. Ben ignores his brother and listens to his heart, doing what he thinks his wife Katherine would have wanted.
Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) is the head caretaker for the animals that’s dedicated her entire life to the zoo. She and her entire crew are used to being under-appreciated and left with nothing. Kelly hopes to team up with Ben and his family to rebuild the zoo for a grand opening that would make everyone’s hard work worth it.
The first half of We Bought a Zoo plays out like a very kid-friendly, light family drama. Most of the emotional depth is sacrificed for simple jokes and cute shots of animals sitting behind cages. Ben is established as a clueless father right out of the gate, who can’t handle his kids or his life. His daughter is the most relatable character of the film, coming off innocent and optimistic. She looks forward to the zoo because it means a new life with her family that she loves.
Ben looks forward to it because it will hopefully help him stop thinking about his wife. He’s at the stage where everything he does or sees brings back past memories of his wife and he doesn’t know how to control those memories.
His son Dylan is depressed and moody. He hates everyone and everything and thinks the whole world misunderstands him and owes him some sort of debt.
All of the characters have unique situations of grief that they need to get through and deal with and We Bought a Zoo does its best to gel them together, but it never feels right.
Because of the struggling first half, the second half has major problems picking up steam. I’m not sure if that’s a writing problem or a directing problem, but it never fully corrects itself by the end. The second half of the film takes place at the zoo and leaves room for the emotions to come at you in full swing. Ben has a much needed heart-to-heart conversation with his son Dylan that resolves their tension, but never fully clears up Ben’s problems. He tries dealing with his wife in several ways and none of them ever come across as sincere.
He lets out his frustration on Kelly, who bounces it right back without much empathy. He tries helping his daughter overcome the death by tossing out old clothes that Katherine had worn, but that doesn’t work because the daughter is later seen with them.
Everything Ben does he never does fully until the very end, which feels odd when placed with the first half of the film. You never really get invested with these characters on an emotional level because the first half is so light and carefree. The jokes they share with each other aren’t that funny and some of the ways they choose to handle the situation are just stupid and worthy of being questioned. The biggest struggle between Ben and his son isn’t really a struggle because the beginning of the film makes no sense for Dylan. His character is supposed to be stubborn and moody, who eventually comes around to understanding his father, but the way its set up you’ll end up siding with the kid and thinking Ben is a complete idiot.
Cameron Crowe knows how to direct his actors, but he doesn’t know how to pick a tone. Are you going for a funny family drama or a serious family drama with funny moments? There’s a difference between dropping in funny moments to help lighten the mood and keeping the whole film funny to keep the mood extremely light.
We Bought a Zoo is often times easy to watch because of Matt Damon. His actual character is an airhead, always adding the word man after every line, making him come off as a stoner. He’s a lost father with not much responsibility and enough money to make poor decisions. Damon makes the character watchable because of how believable he is as a grown father. He’s not a cool and sly Jason Bourne in this film and he’s not a funny over thinker like his role in the Oceans trilogy, instead he’s a confused father who doesn’t understand how to move on from a life changing event. He certainly helps bring out the inner struggle Ben deals with throughout the entire film, up until the last seconds.
Scarlett Johansson isn’t all that impressive as Kelly. She’s the overworked animal lover that doesn’t really know what to say to Ben when he expresses his struggle. She’s constantly nice and charming, but her character never really faces any internal hardships.
It’s really hard classifying We Bought a Zoo. It’s one part family comedy and one part drama. It starts out making you think you’re going to watch an easy family comedy with some drama backing it up, but then its second half reveals itself to be a straight up depressing drama. The film would have been much more meaningful had it stuck with that second half tone from the beginning. It started out very weak, but became promising towards the ending. The problem with that is by that point you’ve already looked past the characters and past the real struggle in exchange for a cute family adventure.
Once it gets thick and starts lying on some heavy stuff you’ll either become disappointed with the slowed down pacing or you’ll enjoy it a lot more and wish the whole film was like that. I enjoyed the second half a lot more than the first and I was upset by how long it took to get there. Damon has no problems making the struggles real and Johansson’s beautiful smile and innocent charm helps shed some light on the dark situation. Cameron Crowe knows how to direct his actors and make characters worth watching, but with We Bought a Zoo he wasn’t able to balance the proper tone or mood needed for the entire film and because of that it’s simply a cute little family drama that will act as filler during the holiday shuffle.
We Bought a Zoo – 6.5/10