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WE BOUGHT A ZOO

SYNOPSIS:
Widowed father Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) buys a struggling private zoo in the hope of making a fresh start with his young daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford). Facing disapproval from his brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church) and enormous odds, he and his children, along with a small but loyal staff led by Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johnasson), work to get the zoo re-opened.

Review by Louise Keller:
It may not be as complete a film as Cameron Crowe's Jerry Maguire or Almost Famous, but this endearing story about a family buying a private zoo offers more drama than the images of its photogenic animals might suggest. Based on real events, grief is the driver that prompts Benjamin Mee (Damon) to uproot his family and look for a new life, after his wife dies.

With its by-the-numbers formula, the film could easily fall into a pit of schmaltz, predictability and clichés, but Crowe and screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) have instilled an edge that delivers powerful moments of emotional angst as well as some delightful ones.

When the film begins, we meet Benjamin in the role in which he is most comfortable - an adventurer journalist, travelling to exotic locations to find his story. But everything changes when he is left to struggle as a single father. Fourteen year-old Dylan (Ford, excellent) resorts to unsocial behaviour to deal with his grief, while seven year-old Rosie (Jones, adorable) is so unsettled, she complains the laughter from the neighbours' parties sound like happiness that is too loud. With a fridge-load of casseroles from well-meaning friends, Benjamin is tired of sympathy.

Much of the credit for the film must go to Damon, whose tangible decency transcends the screen. 'Why not?' is the reply Benjamin gives Kelly Foster, the head zookeeper (Johansson) when she asks why he has bought the dilapidated zoo.

With the exception of Kelly, who is played sympathetically by Johansson, it's a shame the motley volunteer zoo staff are caricatures, as is the zoo inspector Walter Ferris (Higgins), whose endorsement is needed for the zoo to be opened. Ferris is written, directed and played as a boo-hiss villain, which sits neither comfortably or credibly.

Crowe's decision to treat the characters this way is a total misjudgement, while scenes like the one in which an animal-handler enters the lion's enclosure to repair the lock is played for laughs and does little to reinforce respect and caution when dealing with wild animals.

Additionally, the presence of Lily (Fanning), a pretty 13 year-old is too convenient to appease Dylan's negative headspace.

The emotional high points canvass the conflict between father and son; the scene when they vocalise their differences is raw and powerful indeed. Nicely done is the predictable romance between Benjamin and Kelly, which develops slowly; Johansson lovely in a role that relies on warmth, not sex appeal. Haden Church (as Benjamin's brother) adds a welcome sprinkle of humour while Patrick Fugit (the protagonist from Almost Famous) has little to do except shoulder a cute monkey.

The animal scenes will please everyone (with camels, a grizzly bear, a lion, tigers, snakes, peacocks, turtles, owls and a zebra) and the film's moral to be courageous, is one that resonates. It's almost as though Crowe was hedging his bets as to who is his audience - had he simply told the story from the heart, it might have made mine beat.
First published in the Sun-Herald

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Grief driven young widower buys a rural property on a whim 6 months after his wife's death - the place has a private zoo on it. Is this wise? No, says his older brother Duncan Mee (Thomas Haden Church), but Benjamin (Matt Damon) ignores the advice and takes his two children to the zoo. Little Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) loves it, but her older brother Dylan (Colin Ford) hates it. But then Dylan has been having father-son issues, and feels unloved and angry.

So begins the story based on real events, in which an attempted escape from the pain of life leads to pain of a different kind - and finally to acceptance. Damon is in fine form as the young father who is at a loss what to do with either the little girl or his teenage son, or indeed his life. He feeds off his grief and has flashbacks (of the cinematic kind) to the 'happy families' memories, as well as his romantic images of Katherine (Stephanie Szostak). We could have done with less of these overly sentimental and somewhat hackneyed scenes, but maybe director Cameron Crowe was told by the producers to amp up the feel good factor.

Tiny Jones is wonderful as the cute little girl, wiser than her years but just short of precocious, and Ford is tops as the angry young boy, who eventually finds his father has some rather useful words of wisdom for him. Hayden Church is his likeable larrikin self as the older brother with a wry way of offering guidance - and reality checks which Benjamin ignores.

Scarlett Johansson is lively and natural as the head keeper of the zoo animals in a role that doesn't demand much - but it has to be right. Elle Fanning is a sparkling presence with her flashlight smile as the teenager who has a crush on Dylan. Great support from the rest of the cast, and that includes all the animals, from a grisly bear to a lion, from a porcupine to a capuchin monkey - and many others.

The complications of a grieving young father and his kids adds the ballast to the otherwise slight story of a family buying a small functioning zoo, even with the zoo inspector turned into an overdone villain for effect. Oddly enough, the two major elements don't conflict, but work off each other. However, there are some basic flaws in the filmmaking that detract from our total engagement, such as the scene when the family is shown the property by the real estate agent (a wonderful cameo by J. B. Smoove); not only is the house uninhabited, there is no-one looking after the animals, and we don't understand why. (There is no reason except to avoid introducing the zoo volunteers later...)

There is a useful bar around which the characters gather at times, but we don't know where it is in relation to the house. Nor do we learn where the pizza delivery comes from as we're repeatedly told the nearest shops are 9 miles away.

These are relatively unimportant flaws, but they lessen the film's veracity. On the other hand, the animals are wonderfully real and always watchable.



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CRITICAL COUNT
Favourable: 0
Unfavourable: 0
Mixed: 2

WE BOUGHT A ZOO (PG)
(US, 2011)

CAST: Matt Damon, Scarlet Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Elle Fanning, Carla Gallo, Patrick Fugit, John Michael Higgins, Stephanie Sztosak, Colin Ford, Angus Macfadyen, Peter Reigert, Desi Lydic, Maggie Elizabeth Jones

PRODUCER: Julie Yorn

DIRECTOR: Cameron Crowe

SCRIPT: Cameron Crowe, Aline Brosh McKenna

CINEMATOGRAPHER: Rodrigo Prieto

EDITOR: Mark Livolsi

MUSIC: Jonsi

PRODUCTION DESIGN: Clay A. Griffith

RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes

AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: 20th Century Fox

AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: December 26, 2011







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