Inspired by the 2008 memoir of the same name by Benjamin Mee, a former DIY columnist for the Guardian, We Bought A Zoo tells the story of a family who, reeling from the death of their mother, spend their life savings on a dilapidated, financially-stricken zoo -complete with 200 exotic animals -and work towards preparing it for its grand re-opening.
Despite the movie’s sun-kissed Californian setting, the real-life inspiration for the story is actually based near the village of Sparkwell, on the outskirts of Dartmoor. Formerly known as Dartmoor Wildlife Park, the zoo was run by the controversial figure of Ellis Daw since 1968, eventually closing in April 2006 after well-publicised concerns over the wellbeing of a number of animals, not least the Siberian tigers. As well as relocating the action stateside, director Cameron Crowe and his co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) have taken a number of liberties with the story, tweaking the time-line slightly and, most notably, grafting on a love interest for widower Benjamin (Matt Damon) in the form of feisty head zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson).
Former Rolling Stone journalist Cameron Crowe has enjoyed something of a mixed Hollywood career, achieving his biggest plaudits with disparate crowd-pleasers such as Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. We Bought A Zoo marks his belated return to the filmmaking fray after 2005’s poorly received romantic drama Elizabethtown, which proved a stretch too far for viewers and critics alike with its self-satisfied blend of romance, music and chat.
Interestingly, rather than attempt to recapture the hip edge of Crowe’s earlier work, We Bought A Zoo goes straight for heart-warming family-friendly territory, and is all the better for it. That said, Crowe’s sole concession to his favoured alternative music background is the film’s excellent soundtrack -the bulk of which was provided by Sigur Ros vocalist Jonsi. (However, equally well-judged is the remainder of the playlist, which consists of the likes of Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Eddie Vedder. Indeed, rumour has it that the deciding factor in Matt Damon accepting the role was the compilation CD that Crowe handed him on the set of True Grit.)
With a heartfelt lead performance from the ever-reliable Damon, and a plot that gently tugs at the heart-strings without ever collapsing into mawkishness, We Bought A Zoo may not rank as one of Crowe’s finest films, but it has bags of wholesome charm. Obviously, it goes without saying that it would have been nice if Crowe had preserved the book’s Devon setting, but We Bought A Zoo manages to impress in spite of the potentially unwieldy geographic dislocation. Enjoyable stuff.
We Bought A Zoo is available on DVD from July 16, from 20th Century Fox.
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