In We Bought a Zoo, a man grieving the loss of his wife and his children's mother decides to move out of the city and buy a zoo, because studies show that the best way to get over the death of a loved one is to buy a multi-acre property full of expensive and dangerous exotic animals. Cameron Crowe's first theatrical movie in six years and his best since Almost Famous, We Bought a Zoo is an uplifting, moving and entertaining drama that hits all the right emotional chords.
The movie stars Matt Damon as Benjamin, an adventurous widower who, in an impulsive attempt to give his two children - a sweet seven-year-old girl (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and a brooding teenage boy (Colin Ford) - an experience that will help them (and him) overcome their grief, buys a broken-down zoo. ‘Lions, tigers and bears!' rings surprisingly true, though Benjamin faces bigger hurdles: being financially responsible, reconciling with his son and working with the eclectic group of people who work there, namely zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson).
Damon turns in a believable, likable performance that is worthy of more attention than it'll receive. Though the role lacks the punch typically seen as award-contending, Damon gives one of the finest performances of the year. He lets the audience experience his emotional journey as he does; it isn't melodramatic or overly serious, but it's real and powerful in a surprisingly relatable way.
Even though Damon has delivered tackled more memorable characters in better movies, We Bought a Zoo features one of his most complex characters to date. Damon has always been a talented actor, but has typically played larger-than-life characters. This is one of his first roles as an everyday man. For the most part, Benjamin is optimistic, goodhearted and determined, but he's strained a variety of pressures; he's a character within a character, a man who has to put on a show for those around him, hiding his true feelings for the sake of keeping his family together. Not to mention himself.
Damon is supported by a great cast, which features recognized actors like Thomas Haden Church, Scarlett Johansson and Elle Fanning, and relative newbies Colin Ford and Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who play his children. Church is particularly good, playing the not-so-wise sage of an older brother to Benjamin's impulsive nature. Fanning, in a small role, is a scene-stealer; her role could have gone to so many young actresses, but she brings a sincere charisma to the character few others could do.
As good as the acting is, We Bought a Zoo is a quintessential Crowe production, and its success or failure rests largely in the director and co-writer's hands. The movie could easily have descended into schmaltzy or melodramatic territory, but We Bought a Zoo is an enjoyable and heartwarming movie that looks and feels like a Cameron Crowe classic, and in many ways, is. It's funny and entertaining, but also sentimental and emotional at key times. Some have criticized the movie for being too sentimental and sweet, but it doesn't matter: We Bought a Zoo is a very good movie, with great performances and a fun, feel-good story.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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