We Bought a Zoo is so sickeningly wholesome that one’s teeth threaten to fall out when watching it. Bouncing back from his 2005 flop Elizabethtown, director Cameron Crowe drenches proceedings in syrup but, without a sharp, zesty script to back up the honey inflected visuals, the film comes across as too soft for its own good.
Even more frustrating, the Hollywood gloss gets in the way of the fascinating story which inspired the film itself. Back in 2007, ex-Guardian journalist Benjamin Mee re-opened Dartmoor Wildlife Park (newly dubbed Dartmoor Zoological Park) to the public. He purchased the dilapidated site in the face of overwhelming obstacles -the animals were being threatened with extermination and there were manifold legal complications inherent in the purchase of the site.
Add to that the unsavoury reputation of the site’s previous owner and there was more than enough material to fill your standard ‘triumph over adversity’ story. Mee’s experiences were eventually published in the book of the same name.
The fact that Hollywood has to add its own wrinkles to an already compelling story is irksome. Matt Damon stars as Mee’s counterpart, a former adventure journalist struggling to raise his children following his wife’s death (one of several autobiographical elements carried over from real life). His daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) is, predictably, a sweetie-pie, and his son, Dylan (Colin Ford) an even more predictable stereotype: a moody teenager.
It is, therefore, time for a fresh start, and the family sets about looking for a new home outside the city. And of course the property that best fills Damon’s requirements (emerging from a sun dappled glade in the manner of a Norman Rockwell painting) happens to be a dilapidated zoo. He purchases it without hesitation, which raises one of several underlying problems with the movie. If it’s called We Bought A Zoo, why gloss over the economic and pragmatic realities that might lend the drama some bite?
Why avoid the interesting avenues of the story in favour of a twee, quaint attitude where all problems are shrugged off with a beaming smile? There’s nothing wrong with schmaltz, but there needs to be substance behind it. Unfortunately, Crowe’s film gets lost in the myriad of subplots and side-characters, some of which are affecting (the Damon-Ford, father son arguments are the most convincing parts of the film); others of which are annoying distractions (the presence of the nefarious zoo inspector with his extendable measuring tape).
So the film fails to engage with the source material and the ever-present sunlight cries out for a myriad choir of ecclesiastical angels. However, the enterprise is pretty much single-handedly saved by the presence of Damon, one of our finest modern actors, who can bounce from action (the Bourne series) to tender drama such as this on a dime. While Crowe is working overtime to massage our tearducts, Damon makes it look effortless, even when labouring through romantic scenes with unlikely head keeper Scarlett Johanssen.
There’s also something to be said for a movie which wears its heart on its sleeve so blatantly. In comparison to the recent wave of cynical, tawdry trash that has erupted from Hollywood (Project X et al), the fact that We Bought a Zoo has any sort of heart at all is reassuring. Far from a memorable experience then but harmless enough and recommended to those struggling to find suitable family entertainment.