Cameron Crowe has become near infamous in making overly sentimental Hollywood productions, managing to find mawkishness in any given situation. And the Jerry Maguire director has excelled himself here, managing to find sentimentality and emotionalism in the unlikeliest of settings: A zoo.
Based on a true story, Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a widowed single parent of two, desperately searching for an alternative lifestyle to help him recover from the death of his wife. With a troublesome teenage son in Dylan (Colin Ford) and the younger, and more playful Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), Benjamin decides pack it all in and buy a zoo.
The dilapidated and struggling zoo is in need of renovation and despite the arduous task that lies ahead, Benjamin and his co-workers, including the beautiful zoo keeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), work towards a summer re-opening of Rosemoor Wildlife Park, although aware they are going to have to get past the strict inspector Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins) first. Benjamin has his own worries too, as he is struggling financially, whilst his relationship with Dylan is growing ever more tenuous, as the family attempt to overcome their tragedy.
We Bought a Zoo tells a heart-warming tale of one man's dream and the lengths he will go to achieve it, particularly after suffering from the loss of his partner. Yet it is somewhat off-putting when made aware of just how Hollywoodised the production is, due to the lack of factuality in regards to the true occurrences.
In real life the zoo was in fact opened in Devon, England and Benjamin's wife passed away after the opening of the park. Such amendments made by the production company aren't an important issue as such, but highlight the general and superfluous over-sentimentalism of the feature. In fairness, at points the film does become upsetting, particularly when the children speak about missing their mother, but We Bought a Zoo is full to the rim of clichéd one liners, and all becomes far too cinematic, mostly evident in the purchasing of the property, with J.B. Smoove playing the estate agent Mr. Stevens, where the film suddenly becomes quite slapstick and jovial, or with the excessively evil inspector Walter. There are also too many palpably false disequilibriums, with inane issues that need solving during the rejuvenation of the zoo.
And it is the rejuvenation process which damages the picture, as Benjamin buys the zoo early on whilst the opening day is during the latter stages of the film, meaning that the whole feature has to be padded out with their preparations, where so much could have been cut. The film certainly suffers from being half an hour too long. Actually never mind that, it's two hours too long.
The story itself just doesn't seem important enough to warrant a cinematic adaptation, as effectively all that has happened is that one bloke bought a zoo, and that's about it. Is this filmworthy? I used to know a guy who worked at the local newsagents who had better stories to tell than that, and I don't see a film being made about him. There are also the highly inane and pointless romantic sub-plots between Benjamin and Kelly, and Dylan and helper at the zoo Lily (Elle Fanning). Both completely unnecessary.
On a more positive note, Damon is brilliant as the lead, taking on an entirely different role to his usual, barely recognisable as the adventurous and struggling single parent. There are no fighting scenes within this, and Damon really has to use ulterior methods in fully encapsulating the role at hand. Ford and Jones are also impressive as the two children, as Dylan is highly annoying, whilst Rosie is cute and rascally, if a little irritating, which proves they both got it spot on, and both manage to combine such traits with a quite sincere display of grief.
All-in-all We Bought a Zoo is a typical family drama, certainly endearing and enjoyable in parts yet bathetic and tedious in others. It's got an Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close feel to it, so I would avoid it if you weren't a fan of that particular movie. But overall the biggest misgiving comes within the lacklustre story, where a man quite simply purchases a wildlife park. And it doesn't even look like a very good zoo.