(Show me the monkey!) We Bought A Zoo Review

We Bought A Zoo Review
By Bret Dorman

Yes, the name We Bought A Zoo is stupid. But it also accurately describes exactly what movie you’re getting. A super sappy and contrived “Wouldn’t it be great if we all just lived for today and acted on our impulses and even though life seems tough at times it all works out in the end” fantasy. I appreciate the upfrontness of the title of this movie as opposed to let’s say… Jerry Maguire, which should have been called Sports Agent Quits His Job and Becomes A Sports Agent.

Story: Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is trying to figure out how to give his kids the best All-American experience he can ever since their mother passed away. So he buys a house which oopsy-daisy! turns out to also be a semi-functional zoo complete with its own animals and staff, which are now depending on him with their very lives to not fail at being the best zoo keeper ever. Also, Scarlet Johansson may be the lady to get Matt Damon to start thinking about ladies again.

We Bought A Zoo is in a way a good family movie. it has emotional drama for the adults and cute animals for the kids. But in a way it’s stuck in the middle of not being a good movie for either. The animals never do anything too wacky or talk. And the characters never express their opinions through anything more than elevated arguments like “You don’t understand me Dad!” and “Yeah well sometimes life isn’t fair!” Its trying so hard to give you a feel good movie it forgets that first we must feel something about the characters themselves and not just their actions or how cute the animals look.

While Matt Damon delivers a fine performance and Scarlet Johansson is more believable as a young obsessed ‘scientist’ type than James Franco in Rise/Apes, Thomas Hayden Church is laughably self-parody (his performance is like Sideways but ‘sillier’) and Elle Fanning is awkward and not in an adorable way (unlike her super pro acting skillz in Super 8). Angus MacFayden plays a Zoo Designer (?) who comically threatens to KILL a rival zoo guy but really what would he do if he got his hands on his rival? Nothing. John Michael Higgins and Carla Gallo play sort of bad people, one of whom succumbs to the Rag Tag zoo team’s can do spirit and one who gets their comeuppance by being told they have to leave the movie. Colin Ford plays the angsty loner son with lots of angst and Maggie Elizabeth Jones plays the cute adorable daughter with lots of adorable.

Zoo spends just enough time on the happy but too much time on the sad. I’m not opposed to seeing characters suffer and calling it a good film (Requim For A Dream), but I don’t like seeing characters be sad for long periods of time when I know that a scene or two later they will muster up a speech out of nowhere (the soul?) in which they surprise everyone, including themselves! I didn’t think they had it in ’em… no seriously, where did this burst of character arc come from? I like scenes where characters actually feel sad, like Damon’s touching moment with a sick animal, but not when characters just tell me they’re sad or mad in an elevated tone, like every ‘escalating’ argument the father and son have which starts bland and ends no where.

Having said all this mean stuff, it is kind of hard to really feel malicious towards a movie so kind spirited. The worst people in this movie are one guy who might not let the zoo open because he’s a real stickler for the rules and one lady who thought she might not have a job soon so she kind of went looking elsewhere and advised some others to as well. The movie is filtered through those “back in my day we didn’t have Nintendos or Robots we had Kick the Can and running outside!” goggles. The main character triumphantly quits a job we never got to hate, reluctantly comes to terms with the death of his wife we never got to know, and proudly accomplishes his dream of opening a zoo he’s had for about a month so… good for him I guess?

In Conclusion, while We Bought A Zoo has as many flaws as it does claws, it’s hard to really hate on it since it is so nice and really does seem to come from the heart. I just wish such a feel good passion project wasn’t so easily forgettable.

Final Grade: C-

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