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We Bought A Zoo first good family movie of the year

While technically this movie came out just before Christmas and therefore is a 2011 film, my opening this week is that I’ve seen the first really good family movie of this year.
We Bought A Zoo starring Matt Damon and Scarlet Johannsen is based on a true story that happened in England. In this case it’s the west coast and the star is the very American Matt Damon, but it translates well.
Damon plays Benjamin Mee, and adventure journalist who has just lost his wife. Now, six months after her death, his son Dylan is troubled and starting to act out while his daughter Rosie is seemingly fine even though she can’t sleep. Mee picks up and sells his house and buys a property in the country that just happens to house a run-down zoo. It’s closed to the public but has been barely maintained by Kelly, (Johansson).
There is the usual skepticism and mistrust of the city slicker who has no commitment to the animals or the staff who toil endlessly under the California sun for next to nothing. I have staff working for me. They’d awesome but they’d toil for about seven minutes without getting paid before the auction would start, but I digress.
One of the great things about this film is it was written and directed by Cameron Crowe. I won’t bore you with all the details, but if you aren’t familair with his career, Google him. He makes good movies and his personal story is rather remarkable. His story of being a 15-year-old rock reporter is memorialized in one of my favorite films, Almost Famous.
So Crowe directs and while he usually has a Speilbergesque kind of sentimentality which I don’t mind, he downplays it here. In all fairness, if Disney can kill Bambi’s mom then Crowe can kill of the mythical Mrs Mee.
Damon is the focal point of the film and he pulls it off. I am starting to appreciate his acting chops. He has range and is just interesting enough to capture the impact and drama of losing your wife, uprooting your kids and of course, taking on a project that you know nothing about.
For her part, Johansson is her usual semi-interesting but borderline bland self. I’m not sure she’s still the flavor of the month because it’s a long month, but she gets role-based on her looks more than her skill. She seemed promising in The Girl With the Pearl Earring but hasn’t really delivered since. Still this movie doesn’t need huge performances. It’s a small picture and a great little story.
The kids are interesting and Crowe, or the adult stars, never condescend to focus on their cuteness, which isn’t milked. They are troubled and curious and slowly get drawn into the life at the zoo and the animals. I also have to give credit to Thomas Heyden Church who was the goofy guy on Wings but has slowly built a nice portfolio of really interesting roles in pretty decent films. He plays Wee’s brother and manages to bring the right moments of cynicism and levity when it’s starting to get too predictable or cheesy.
We Bought A Zoo is compelling and funny and sad and well worth the price of admission. It isn’t manipulative and while it isn’t as warm and fuzzy as I was thinking it might be, the overall effect works and works well.
I think it’s a great watch, but of course I live like a wolf so my opinion is slightly biased.
As always, other opinions are welcome, but wrong. That’s it for this week. The cheque’s in the mail and I’m outta here. Paul

Filed Under: Paul Peterson

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