Director: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson
"All you need is twenty seconds of insane courage." If ever a single movie line summed up the ethos of its filmmaker, it's that one with respect to writer/director Cameron Crowe. In a realm of dreamers (which film, by its nature, is), his protagonists are the most relentlessly optimistic. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't; often the results are a little bit mixed. But, hey, the soundtrack is always good.
Somewhat based on a true story, We Bought A Zoo follows Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a recently widowed father of two to teenage Dylan (Colin Ford) and 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), who decides to get a fresh start in order to deal with his grief. Shortly after leaving his job, he begins looking for a new home for himself and the kids, eventually settling on a property that comes with the very unique feature of being attached to a zoo. The zoo has been closed to the public for a while but the animals are still resident, as are some members of the staff, including zookeepers Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) and Robin (Patrick Fugit), temperamental carpenter MacCready (Angus MacFayden), and Kelly's cousin Lily (Elle Fanning), who works in the zoo's cafe.
Benjamin is determined to get the zoo up and running again, even though at times he seems terribly out of his depth. His main obstacle - aside from the fact that he doesn't know the first thing about running a zoo - is Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins), a strict zoo inspector and the long-time enemy of MacCready, who believes that many of his design innovations were stolen by Ferris. With the clock ticking down towards inspection time, Benjamin and the rest of the team struggle to get the zoo up to code and then have to contend with a rainstorm that threatens to keep the zoo empty even if they improve it enough to allow it to be re-opened.
If Crowe's protagonists have any one thing in common, it's their nakedly optimistic outlook (the exception, I suppose, is Vanilla Sky). In films where the protagonist is a teenager, such as Say Anything... and Almost Famous, this works well because the complete lack of cynicism in the characters is believable. In movies where the protagonist is an adult, this character formula isn't as successful or, at least, not so completely successful. In order to really sell it, the story itself has to have a really high energy so that it moves fast enough that you don't really notice the outsize idealism of the characters. We Bought A Zoo lacks that energy, moving slowly from plot point to plot point so that the flaws in its construction are all too obvious.
None of this is to say that We Bought A Zoo is a bad movie. It's formulaic in that each and every thing that you expect to happen does, but it's enjoyable enough in spite of that. The film's problem is that while it's likeable, it's likeable in a really bland and kind of forgettable way. But, as I said... the soundtrack's pretty good.