Why should I like We Bought a Zoo? On paper, Cameron Crowe's latest self-discovery romance is a mess: it's sentimental, manipulative and self-conscious – no different from countless other inspirational family movies, from 2008's Marley and Me to 2011's inexplicably successful Dolphin Tale. And yet, against all logic, We Bought a Zoo doesn't fall into that trap. The difference between this and, say, The Blind Side, is that in the former, at least for the most part, the romanticism feels genuine, not a cheap method of pandering to parents in search of a family-friendly movie (for the record, I don't imagine that many children will find We Bought a Zoo all that interesting, despite numerous shots of animals). Thanks to a capable cast, Crowe's spirited direction and, of course, the pitch-perfect soundtrack, We Bought a Zoo is far better than it has any right to be.
Whether you enjoy We Bought a Zoo most likely depends on how you feel about director/co-writer Cameron Crowe. After the dark, bizarre Vanilla Sky and the meditative Elizabethtown, this represents Crowe's return to the energetic, lighthearted fare that made him popular and features many of his usual tropes, including the memorable, somewhat cheesy dialogue; the aimless male protagonist; the quirky sense of humor; the precocious child. Having fallen in love with Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, I was both excited and anxious for We Bought a Zoo, hoping for a career comeback for Crowe but also accepting that the chances of it being a widespread success were slim. The result is similar to what I anticipated: a heartwarming, if occasionally schmaltzy ode to the power of love. Although lacking the vivacious wit of Jerry Maguire and the nostalgic ease of Almost Famous, We Bought a Zoo has a charm of its own in its belief in happy endings and the strength of the human spirit. Thus, while those who dislike Crowe's brand of all-American naiveté will probably find the movie intolerably sentimental and disingenuous, those like me, who are less opposed to starry-eyed optimism, will discover moments of surprising emotional honesty.
Much kudos must be given to the cast, particularly the five main actors. Matt Damon is a perfect fit for Cameron Crowe, imbuing his character with just the right blend of cheerful vitality and quiet sorrow to prevent him from becoming cartoonish and delivering even the most questionable lines with tireless aplomb. Once again, he proves his ability to seamlessly inhabit virtually any role, as, with his graying hair and pudgy physique, he is one of the few A-list actors that can convincingly play a completely ordinary father of two. Taking over the prerequisite "friend" role, Thomas Haden Church puts his dry pragmatism to good use, evening out the bubbly dynamism that saturates the rest of the movie, and, although not as impressive as in J.J. Abram's Super 8, Elle Fanning displays admirable maturity for an actress her age, proving that she is undeniably one to watch out for. Nonetheless, the biggest surprises are Scarlett Johansson and Colin Ford. The matter-of-fact foil to Damon's idealist, Johansson goes against type, shedding her usual sylphlike sensuality in favor of something more down-to-earth and restrained, displaying a subtle composure evocative of her work in such films as The Horse Whisperer and Ghost World. As the bitter, volatile Dylan, arguably the juiciest part in the movie, newcomer Colin Ford (whose most notable credit so far is a recurring guest spot on the TV show Supernatural) displays considerable self-control, turning what could have easily been a stereotypical, angst-ridden teen into a complex person. Like Alex Schaffer, who had a similar turn in Win Win, he joins an astonishingly long list of promising young performers this year.
We Bought a Zoo is not perfect. Unlike the aforementioned actors, young Maggie Elizabeth Jones does not fare so well as Mee's innocent, outspoken daughter. She is undoubtedly adorable, yet she is never quite believable and fails to transcend the angelic child cliché the way Jonathan Lipnicki did in Jerry Maguire, and some of her scenes are almost cringe-worthy in their excessive cuteness. The first thirty minutes are uneven, relying too heavily on ham-fisted idiosyncrasies and rather clumsy attempts at humor, which is a shame since it is precisely those moments that Crowe handled with perfection in romantic comedies like Jerry Maguire and Say Anything. The scenes involving the amateur real estate agent are especially unpleasant; luckily, there are only a few. Only after the family moves into the new house and begins to interact with the zoo workers does the movie find its groove.
The 2011 movie year has brought a surprising trend: a return to optimism. From the wide-eyed wonder of Super 8 to the whimsical nostalgia of The Artist, numerous films have displayed a willingness to break from the dark cynicism that has suffused recent cinema and embrace a newfound sanguinity. Maybe, then, We Bought a Zoo could not have been released at a better time. With its boundless energy and can-do attitude, not to mention radiant cinematography and sweeping score (composed by none other than Jónsi of Sigur Ros fame), this is the epitome of exuberance, a bright declaration of faith in humanity rarely seen in modern film. At first, I was hesitant to accept We Bought a Zoo (something about its brazen cheer felt outdated, contrived), yet around the halfway mark, I realized that I was tearing up. Then, during an unexpectedly raw argument scene, I outright cried. Maybe the movie is nothing but a cheap ploy for emotion, a series of scenes designed to manipulate viewers into experiencing feelings inorganic to the story and characters, an inauthentic, condescending portrait of false ideals. In the end, though, I couldn't help but succumb to the film's bold sensitivity, its simple tale of triumph over adversity and redemption through love. To answer the question posed at the beginning of this review, I will say what Benjamin Mee would probably say: Why not?