We Bought a Zoo is red meat for cynics. Cameron Crowe precariously perches his heart upon his sleeve and taunts misanthropists and skeptics, begging them to take the easy route, to mock the movie for its earnestness, to criticize his dogged efforts to elicit tears. Intelligent audiences will be divided: Some will call it sentimental rubbish while other will buy into Crowe’s brand of idealism, let We Bought a Zoo sweep over them, and give in to one of the most touching, hopeful, and heartfelt films of the year. But it is not fake. Anyone who has followed Cameron Crowe’s career knows that, while it may not be to everyone’s liking, there’s nothing phony about Cameron Crowe’s passion, his sense of romance, and his idealism. Yet, if it weren’t so sweet and life-affirming, it’d probably be annoying as hell.
What’s certain is that Cameron Crowe fans — those that bought into Lloyd Dolber’s dare to be greatness, who subscribed to Jerry Maguire’s mission statement, and who long to be Golden Gods — will love We Bought a Zoo. It’s vintage Crowe: A sweet sense of humor, great characters, love and the impossible dream. It teeters on the edge of clever and schmaltzy, it is rousing and romantic, uplifting and inspiring, and goes to great lengths to yank those tears out of your eye sockets, but by God, it succeeds, and it does so without making you feel cheap. We Bought a Zoo is nice enough to buy you dinner before it fucks up your mascara.
We Bought a Zoo is based on the true story of Benjamin Mee, who took over the Dartmoor Zoological Park in England, refurbished it, and re-opened it to the public after it had been shut down due to questions about the safety of the animals. The efforts of Mee, a DIY columnist for The Guardian, were turned into a memoir and later a four-part TV series over in England. 20th Century Fox bought the rights, transplanted the setting to California, brought in Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) to pen the screenplay, and hired Cameron Crowe to direct. He rewrote it, adding several distinctive Crowe flourishes and changed the tone with some well placed Ryan Adams and Cat Stevens songs that breathe mournful homeyness and tender achiness into the proceedings.
Matt Damon stars as Mee, an adventure journalist who lost his wife to cancer six months prior to the events in the film. He’s struggling in his efforts to raise his two children, particularly Dylan (Colin Ford), who has turned somber and rebellious since the death of his mother. Aching to get away from the city and all of the triggers that remind him of his wife, Benjamin quits his job and impulsively sinks his entire inheritance into the zoo, hopeful for a fresh start for himself and his children.
The zoo, which had been closed, comes with its own staff of eager and enthusiastic employees, including the head zookeeper (Scarlett Johansson), and other assorted Zooeys, like the charming but quiet Robin (Patrick Fugit) and the likable drunk, Peter (Angus Macfadyen) (character types obviously leftover from the original script). With a limited budget and a deadline, they set about rebuilding the zoo to meet the exacting specifications of the inspector (John Michael Higgins), while Benjamin also deals with the struggles of raising his two kids, one of whom is not his biggest fan.
I had reservations about Matt Damon; he doesn’t strike me as an appropriate voice for Cameron Crowe’s words, but he absolutely nails it with a heady mix of stammering uncertainty and against-all-odds hope. Ultimately, he feels more authentic than Tom Cruise; he’s more John Cusack without the jaded edges that allowed Cusack to temper the earnestness: Damon doesn’t filter it, and in a way, it makes it more raw but also more ripe for mockery. Scarlett Johannson is solid, too: A frumpy muss who is more tomboy than bombshell, and while many may be skeptical of a romantic relationship between Damon and Johansson’s character, that’s not what Zoo is about: There’s a definite In America vibe bubbling underneath. We Bought a Zoo is not a romantic comedy; it’s a light drama with heavyweight themes about moving on without letting go, and Damon’s heartache bleeds through every scene of the film.
There are two other standout performances that bear mentioning: Elle Fanning, who plays the head zookeeper’s sister and Dylan’s crush, is like a big block of giggly heartwarm, a 13-year-old version of Penny Lane before the world tarnished her. Then there’s Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who plays Benjamin’s daughter, Rosie. She is a big puddle of adorable, the female counterpart to Jonathon Lipnicki’s character in Jerry Maguire, one of those wide-eyed want-to-put-her-in-your-pocket children who see only the best in everything and everybody, the kind of child actor who can make your heart flip with a glimmery glance.
But what elevates We Bought a Zoo from outstanding heartfelt film to holy-shit-I-want-to-be-a-better-person-because-of-this movie is Jonsi’s (Sigur Rós) soaring score; it’s the first Cameron Crowe film with an extensive score, and this one is outstanding, like floating red balloons and ache and hope and longing all blended into these floating notes that will seep inside and break you. It’s like one of Barack Obama’s “We Can Believe” speeches before we lost faith: Your eyes will well, your heart will leak, your soul will expand, and if you’re the kind of person with the capacity to do so, you will believe. Crowe will take you to the edge, and Jonsi will push you over, cynics be damned.