Matt Damon as Benjamin Mee
Maggie Elizabeth Jones as Rosie Mee
Colin Ford as Dylan Mee
Thomas Haden Church as Duncan Mee
Scarlett Johansson as Kelly Foster
Elle Fanning as Lily Miska
Patrick Fugit as Robin Jones
Angus Macfadyen as Peter MacCready
John Michael Higgins as Walter Ferris
Carla Gallo as Rhonda
Stephanie Szostak as Katherine Mee
Desi Lydic as Shea Seger
Peter Riegert as Delbert McGinty
Nicole Andrews as Joyce Jamison
Directed by Cameron Crowe
Writer and widower Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is still trying to come to terms with the death of his wife six months ago while raising his two kids, but when his son Dylan (Colin Ford) is expelled from school, they're forced to move elsewhere and Benjamin ends up buying a large estate that happens to include a wildlife preserve. With his family and the acting zookeeper (Scarlett Johansson), Benjamin works to get the zoo into shape to open for the busy summer season.
Is it just a coincidence that in the same year Alexander Payne makes his return to narrative filmmaking, Cameron Crowe is following right behind him, both dealing with single fathers trying to take care of kids while getting past their dying or dead wives? Who knows, but "We Bought a Zoo," based on the memoir by Benjamin Mee, certainly offers a lot more than the normal family fare in terms of emotional weight while still being perfectly fine family entertainment for those just wanting a few hours of escapism.
Co-written by Aline Brosh McKenna of lighter mainstream comedy fare like "27 Dresses" and "Morning Glory," you can almost tell which scenes and lines were written by Crowe, because the material seems well-suited for Crowe's sensibilities and his hand prints are fairly evident from the common check marks with his previous work: the lead character is a writer (though one who does very little writing), he's dealing with a loss and mid-life crisis while raising an adorable kid. Although there are also common elements with "Marley & Me," Crowe does a fine job introducing Benjamin Mee and his family in a way that has you on board from the beginning, leading up to them buying the zoo and working with its motley group of caretakers including acting zookeeper Kelly, played by Scarlett Johansson, to make it presentable for a summer opening.
One reason it works so well is that it offers another chance for Matt Damon to play a convincing father, and he has as good a handle on Crowe's writing as Tom Cruise did with "Jerry Maguire," and it's a role to which he can bring his charm and humor. He probably had to come to terms fairly early that every single scene would be stolen or sometimes even driven by the adorable Maggie Elizabeth Jones as Benjamin's 7-year-old daughter, whose every remark and expression generates the type of natural warmth that successfully tenderizes audience to the film's tone. Johansson doesn't have to do nearly as much heavy lifting, and thankfully, the romantic tension between the two leads is fairly well downplayed rather than taking the most obvious path of least resistance.
There are quite a few other options for comic relief whether it's Thomas Haden Church as Benjamin's brother or Angus Macfadyen as the rowdy and often drunk Scottish zookeeper or his arch-nemesis, John Michael Higgins' Walter Ferris, the zoo inspector. The humor is always handled tastefully and it's driven by the characters and dialogue rather than going for obvious laughs. Even when Benjamin faces a pair of porcupines, Damon plays up the physical humor without making it as outrageously silly as a similar scene in "Zookeeper" and there's even some darker humor that works just because it's so unexpected. (A from-out-of-nowhere Chilean miner reference, for instance.)
The weakest subplot is the one involving Benjamin's son Dylan and the young girl working at the zoo, played by Elle Fanning, a na´ve country girl who is glad to have a friend her age, though it's never resolved in a particularly credible or convincing way. And what on earth happened to Patrick Fugit? He starred in one of Crowe's most memorable films and now he's back acting as straight man to Crystal the Capuchin Monkey (though this time, thankfully, without the Adam Sandler voice). There are only a few moments that are outright embarrassing, though the cast handles themselves well and pushes through them to come out the other side fairly unscathed. Parents may want to make note there is a slight bit of foul language that they may not want impressionable children repeating.
One thing that's quite clear is how much better this movie is with Cameron Crowe at the helm, and not just due to his commendable taste in music - what other director would use Neil Young's "Cinnamon Girl" in a typical montage and make it work? Only a few other filmmakers could successfully deal with people coming to terms with loss in a mainstream family film without glossing over that aspect once the animals are introduced, but Crowe never loses sight of the characters' motivations.
Once the film hits its third act, it starts verging into the "five minute drama" territory that plagues so many other films where every five minutes, a new obstacle is thrown their way then rectified in a matter of moments, though the characters do find satisfying closure even if the last scene may have worked better if it occurred ten minutes earlier.
The Bottom Line:
In any other hands, "We Bought a Zoo" may have been schmaltzy to the point of being unwatchable, but Crowe finds just the right blend of easy crowd-pleasing moments while maintaining the strong sense of drama and character dynamics in which he excels. It's really nice to have him back.