If there's any consistent theme to the terrific family films we got this year (and that's excepting crap like ZOOKEEPER or THE SMURFS or the upcoming CHIPMUNKS film, movies that I'm not not going to bother with and will likely never see) it's that this is the year of the Death of Cynicism. Even this summer's SUPER 8 is about the drive of a kid to make his movie and to heal the relationship with his father, and it's done in a manner and a tone that seems innocent by today's standards. Films like HUGO, or THE MUPPETS all comment on how much the world has changed and what it would take to bring that idealism back. I'm an idealist by nature, so all these films have their place in my heart. The result is, at least for me, a truly superlative year of family entertainment, one that I don't think has been rivaled since 1982.
Cameron Crowe's WE BOUGHT A ZOO falls right into that perfectly. Crowe's never been a cynic eith his movies anyway, so it's no surprise that WE BOUGHT A ZOO is as heartwarming and as sentimental as it is. Crowe's films have a real danger of overtipping the scale when it comes to heavy emotion - see ELIZABETHTOWN for that - but it take a very skilled filmmaker to know how to manipulate the audience while not showing the gears of the machinery that does it. Steven Spielberg is a master of that, and now, Cameron Crowe is too.
Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is a journalist who travels the world getting interesting stories and seeing interesting people. He's something of a danger junkie and he loves his work, but all of that comes to a screeching halt when his wife takes ill and dies, leaving Benjamin with full-of-life 7-year--old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and angry-at-the-world 13-year-old Dylan (Colin Ford). After Dylan gets expelled from his school Benjamin decides to change the scenery a bit and move out of Los Angeles. When out houseshopping with a realtor the Mees come across a property that seems to go for less than its worth and that has a full working zoo on the premises, complete with a skeleton staff.
But once Benjamin sees his daughter completely happy on the new property, he knows that he has to buy this property, and in the meantime try to heal some of the damage that his kids suffered. Benjamin's brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church) knows Benjamin is stuck in a funk and needs to shake up his life, but what he doesn't expect is for Benjamin to spend his dad's inheritance on the zoo.
The zoo is full of eccentric personalities like Angus Macfadyen's MacReady, the designer of the zoo enclosures, or Patrick Fugit's Robin, who always has a capuchin monkey on his shoulder, but they don't overwhelm the film. This is Benjamin's story and the film wisely stays focused on him and his family. The head zookeeper, Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), at first, thinks Benjamin will cut and run like so many other owners, but she is surprised by his resolve and quickly warms up to him and his family. As Benjamin's finances sink deeper into debt, and the responsibilities grow, Benjamin must juggle the needs of the zoo and his family with his personal need to let go of his past.
Matt Damon is exceptional as Benjamin. This is a particularly difficult job to pull off in a family film like this - he's the center of the film, and the audience's host to the emotional journey of WE BOUGHT A ZOO and Damon sells all the sentiment completely. One particular sequence, as Benjamin is looking over some photos of his wife on his laptop, comes perilously close to over-the-top but it's Damon and the gifted work of Crowe and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto that bring it back from being too cloying. Scarlett Johansson is also quite good - Kelly Foster may lack social skills because she prefers the animals to the complicated minefield of human relationships, but she navigates that minefield to be a part of Benjamin's life. Elle Fanning (having a good year with this and SUPER 8) plays Lily, an underage employee who falls for Dylan the city kid, and it wouldn't be a Cameron Crowe movie unless there was a sweeping romantic gesture done in the rain, but both Fanning and Ford make it work. The song choices in the film of course work - this is a Cameron Crowe movie, after all - and the score by Sigur Ros frontman Jónsi is quite effective in working the emotions over a bit.
Some people will respond favorably to the sentiment dislayed in WE BOUGHT A ZOO. Crowe's films always tend to skew more romantic than cynical - ALMOST FAMOUS comes closest, in documenting the world of a rock-and-roll touring band, of being the most pragmatic of his films - and WE BOUGHT A ZOO is no exception. Some people will respond with disdain, thinking that Crowe overplays his hand. I'll admit to the film, for me, coming dangerously close to doing that. Some will consider the entire film too calculated towards a response from the audience. But it's the performances and the writing that makes it work for me, and I'll admit to tearing up a few times.
I tend to respond to movies like this - that's part of why I'm such a Spielberg junkie - and movies to me are not simple intellectual exercises but emotional journeys, and that's a large part of why I enjoyed WE BOUGHT A ZOO as much as I did. I tend to think the audiences who see this will respond that way as well - I heard quite a few sniffles in my screening, and resounding applause at the end - and I don't anticipate seeing Crowe make any kind of exploration into the darker recesses of humanity like, say, THERE WILL BE BLOOD or SHAME any time soon. But I think Crowe believes in what he's selling. He wants to live in an age without cynicism, and his movies reflect that. And sometimes, that's enough to make a film feel true and honest, and not manipulative. WE BOUGHT A ZOO is yet another terrific family film in a year stock full of them, and a heartfelt gift this holiday season.