You wanna know the really nice thing about sneak preview showings? No trailers! I know many of you love them, but when you see the same 4-5 trailers over and over again and it adds 15-20 minutes to the amount of time you're sitting in the theater, and it starts to become a drag.
When I first saw the title for this movie, I thought, 'Oh, this is going to be some cheesy family movie'. Fortunately, in the context of the film, the line 'We bought a Zoo' isn't annoying.
Here's a good example of a movie that I really wasn't all that interested in seeing, but was pleasantly surprised. First off, I didn't even know this was a Cameron Crowe film, so I have to say that as soon as I saw his name in the opening credits, my mood immediately shifted from not wanting to see it to actual interest. It's speaks to the point I've said recently about trying to not know too much about a movie going in, because it can sometimes affect the review. I'll admit up front that I like Cameron Crowe a lot, so as soon as I saw it was one of his films, I figured I was going to end up liking it on some level. I haven't liked all of his movies of his like, Elizabethtown or Vanilla Sky, but Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous are amongst my favorites.
We Bought a Zoo is loosely based on the real story of Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon). As with all movies that are based on a true story, there are going to be changes made for 'Hollywood' reasons. Someone was very critical about the change of location in the movie. Mee and the original Zoo were in the UK. However, when you get Matt Damon to play the lead role, of course it's now going to be set in the US. Should they have cast Damon and then still put it in the UK? Would it have been better to hire a bunch of Brits or make everyone work on their accents? Does it really matter at the end of the day? I thought that was a silly criticism. Anyway...
The basic story is that Benjamin Mee's wife was sick and died recently and he's left to take care of his two kids. Mee, a former writer/reporter, decides to quit his job and move in order to get a fresh start. His older son is having issues at school and all the places in the small town they live in remind Ben of his wife, so it was time to get out. He hires a realtor (J.B. Smoove) and starts looking for a new place to live. Nothing seems to have a good fit, until they find an large house out in the country. The catch is that it's a small zoo that had recently been closed. He loves the house and wants to buy it regardless, but the condition is that they have to try to reopen the zoo. He wants to give his kids an authentic experience and doesn't care about the cost or the work it's going to take.
As Ben doesn't have a clue to how to run a zoo, he needs help. Fortunately for him, there's an existing crew that help him out and bring him up to speed. The crew is led by Scarlett Johansson, who finally plays a role that doesn't make me think she's an android. I'm used to her not really having much of an emotional range, but I felt something here from her for a change.
Matt Damon is great. He's charming as hell and I really liked his role. He's very easy to sympathize with. I really think he's easily sinking himself into these 'father' roles. If he does more movies like this, he's going to be the go-to guy for family drama.
The kids were fantastic. Particularly, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who might be one of the cutest child actors I've seen in a while. For a younger actress, I never got the feeling that she was actually acting. I think this is one of the strengths of Cameron Crowe. I've always thought Crowe did a great job with actors, but kids in particular. It's not quite as iconic as the kid from Jerry Maguire, but it's still a cute performance.
Elle Fanning has a small role, but I liked her here. Someone was saying that her character felt mentally challenged, but I thought that was harsh. She's goofy, and a little socially awkward, but I took that as because she's been isolated on the Zoo for so long. She's still one of my favorite young actresses and I refuse to believe her performance was bad here.
The rest of the crew is great and you'll recognize many of them from other films or Cameron Crowe films. Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous) shows up in a small role, and you might recognize Angus Macfayden as the Scottish zookeeper from his role as...the Scottish dude from Braveheart. You'll also recognize John Higgins from his myriad roles in TV and commercials. I think he was underused here though. He plays the 'villian' of the movie, but he's not in it all that much and you don't feel too much of a threat from him. His role kind of felt in just so there'd be some outside conflict.
One of the better roles of the movie is Thomas Haden Church's role as Benjamin Mee's brother. He provides most of the welcome comedy relief and they don't overdo it. I actually wish he would have been in this a little more.
In a way, this movie kind of reminds me of The Descendants. There are some similarities. Both films are about a family struggling with a tragedy/loss of a mother and a father trying to connect with his kids. But where The Descendants was a little more about closure, We Bought a Zoo is more about healing and starting over.
Cameron Crowe always has a way of taking a story like this and making it relatable and the characters sympathetic. He also has a way of shooting people that really makes it feel like you're part of the conversation. I think he really hit the right tone with this movie. Again, someone keeps slipping soy into my nutritional supplements, as there are few times I teared up towards the end. I didn't feel like I was manipulated though. My emotional response was organic to the story.
Call me a big softie, but I really liked We Bought a Zoo. Sure it's schmaltzy, but I thought it was a nice family film that was well-acted, has a good message and a broad appeal. Fans of Cameron Crowe and Matt Damon should like this. I don't think it's Oscar worthy, or even one of the best films of the year, but it's coming out at the right time and I think it's a good choice for the Christmas weekend.
I give this 3 Death Stars (out of 5)
Oh, and I can't post a Matt Damon movie without a clip. It's not a coincidence that SNL ran this last week. However, it's weird that it features Val Kilmer. Anyway...