21, March  2012

We Bought a Zoo

Review by Bill Harrington

An unlikely project for both director and star, We Bought a Zoo is superficially entertaining fare but one which could prove too "schmaltzy" for adult UK audiences while containing more mature themes that may put off the very young.

Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a journalist with a reputation for leaping where angels fear to tread, struggles to keep hold of the reins on his family following the death of his wife. Continually battling with his troubled 14 year old son and finding himself out of work, Mee decides to relocate the family and begin anew. His young daughter is given the casting vote on where to move and she plumps for a sprawling, remote property which, while meeting all of Mee's requirements, also comes with a working zoo as part of the bargain and the stipulation that any buyer takes on the responsibility of running it. Drawing on an inheritance, Mee purchases the zoo and sets about readying it for a safety inspection and a grand re-opening, bumping heads with family and staff along the way, and continuing to struggle internally with the loss of his wife.

Mee is no fictional character but is in actual fact British and a former journalist for the Guardian who took over the running of Dartmoor Zoo in 2006. The story of his zoo's refurbishment was covered the following year in a BBC documentary "Ben's Zoo", and Mee also told his tale in print, which is the basis for this Hollywood adaptation. The tale is relocated to America, Dartmoor becomes the fictional Rosemoor, and events are given a heavy injection of sentimentality that I suspect were absent from the source material (that's an assumption, as admittedly I've not seen the documentary nor have I read the book). Clichés are ticked off routinely. There's the initially suspicious love interest who eventually melts for the hero; a hard-headed inspector who proves to be not quite as cynical as he appears; and a fractious father-son relationship that becomes benign through mutual understanding. Add to this a rather overly sweet little girl who's always on hand with a cute facial expression, gesture or outburst. Some moments of this film really are sweet enough to give you toothache.

The cast rise above the mawkish material they are dealt. A slightly chubby Damon as Mee is an amiable and generous character, yet one who secretly struggles to accept his wife's passing. Scarlett Johansson impresses most as the dedicated zoo manager who has sacrificed her prime years for the welfare of the animals in her care. For most of the proceedings she remains apart from the sentimentality around her. Thomas Haden Church is on hand ostensibly as comic relief but he's not actually given much genuinely funny to say or do, so it's left to Elle Fanning as a zoo help with a  burgeoning interest in Mee's son to provide a light comic touch. A bear and a tiger also lend able support, although I did think the film was quite low on animal footage considering the story's setting. At least all the animals involved appeared to be real. No Jumanji style CGI monkeys here.

It's the quite stupefying sentimentality that halts me from viewing We Bought a Zoo more favourably. The final ten minutes are particularly eye-watering for all the wrong reasons. The revelation that the zoo's grand re-opening is not the failure first feared but actually a ridiculously unrealistic success is bad enough, but a seemingly tacked on and unnecessary scene in which the Mee family are figuratively reunited with Mrs. Mee was a tad too much. Director Cameron Crowe, whose previous credits include cult teen favourite Say Anything, isn't one to shy away from emotional content in his films but he goes overboard here. Perhaps he should consider an uncompromising film noir next to purge it all from his system.

Dartmoor Zoological Park does at least get a pre-credit mention. A nice advert to drive a bit of business its way, and I'm sure the zoo will benefit from this film, although the mention doesn't actually state which country Dartmoor is in. I assume this is just the case with the UK print. If not then I fear there may be a few American families consulting an atlas and searching in vain for it in their homeland.