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film review: we bought a zoo

I will admit, I was apprehensive to allow Visa to sponsor me to see something with such a stupid title. It sounds like one of those comedies that make me want to take money away from stupid Americans who make stupid movies (Hot Tub Time Machine? Just stop me right there). Thankfully, I was proven wrong.

We Bought a Zoo is based on the true story depicted in Benjamin Mee’s 2008 book of the same unfortunate title, where Matt Damon, in fine paternal form, plays a grieving father who buys a dilapidated zoo as a coping mechanism to help his two children cope with the recent death of their mother. The zoo is managed by a quirky ensemble of embattled zookeepers led by Scarlett Johannson, who thankfully tones down the sultry factor for the sake of tasteful family viewing. Together, they help to repair the zoo to its former glory in order to reopen for the summer season.

To be fair, this premise is eye-roll worthy, as there possibly couldn’t be anything cheesier, unless The Rock owned a zoo run by Jennifer Lopez. Mix that in with director Cameron Crowe’s unmatchable ability to make everything sentimental and you have a possible cliché frenzy. However, somehow, Crowe manages to saturate the poignancy of the “adventure” but not patronise the audience.

For those of us who admire Crowe’s work for the very reason of the unfounded passion and romancing of his subjects, you are in for a treat. Almost Famous made the fourteen year old me listen to vinyls of music I had never heard of for the sake of it – even though Destiny’s Child were worthier candidates to write the soundtrack to a movie based on my early adolescence – and this movie may have just convinced me it’s perfectly acceptable to wear gumboots in public. There are predictable, but sweet, love-story arcs, particularly between Lily (Elle Fanning; who you just want to hug) and Dylan (Colin Ford; who you just want to punch, and then hug) and the inevitable, but thankfully not overplayed, blossoming courtship of Damon and Johansson.

With the familiar tunes of Sigur Ros (soundtrack by Jonsi) setting the ambience from jaunty to melancholic, Crowe takes the familiar themes of family, change, angst, love, compassion and charity and then weaves them with the greatest trump cards for family drama-comedies – cute kids and cute animals.

Let me assure you I have no qualms in pointing out the faults of child actors, as many are terrible (Daniel Radcliffe circa Philosopher’s Stone), but Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who plays Damon’s seven-year-old daughter Rosie deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Jones steals the movie with her ability to electrify every frame she’s in with her effortless sharpness and charisma, and is the first early indicator that this film wasn’t a waste of time… I just hope she stays off the smack.

And then there are the animals. While I admit that zoos are probably my favourite places to visit, Crowe has thankfully decided not to make We Bought a Zoo a two-hour montage of animals doing cute things, but instead finds the perfect balance where the animals compliment, rather than overshadow, the potency of the narrative.

If you dislike being constantly reminded that good things come from shit situations, that life is an “adventure”, and that animals and children are adorable – avoid this film.  I think I cried no less than nine times. And I unashamedly loved it.

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