“We Bought a Zoo”: Charming, Heartfelt, and a Return to the Best Kind of Romance
Movies that try to be earnest but don’t do it with reckless abandon always fail. It comes off as tacky and unrealistic and even downright annoying. In your average romantic comedy of the twenty-first century, you’re dealing with a ridiculous premise and well-known stars with zero chemistry (i.e, “The Bounty Hunter”). They try to tell a “cute” story, but filmmakers worry too much about the audience being turned off by something that is too hopelessly romantic, when in reality there’s really nothing better than obnoxious displays of affection like that of Lloyd Dobler in “Say Anything”. You might be entertained by these modern “chick flicks”, but you will never be truly moved by anything that happens. No more do we get the hopelessly and classically romantic 1990’s-ish stories like “When Harry Met Sally…” or “Sleepless In Seattle”. Or what about something with a heart-wrenching finale like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”? Now it’s all movies about bang-buddies who fall for one another or girls who steal coins out of the Trevi fountain. Have filmmakers forgotten about love?
Cameron Crowe’s recent film “We Bought a Zoo”, while far from perfect, is a breath of fresh air when it comes to this and better yet, based on a true story. Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is a father and adventure-journalist living in Los Angeles. For the second time in recent history, Matt Damon plays a struggling father who loses his wife, but instead of flopping around in the mire of social decay (like in “Contagion”), he’s desperately trying to remind both himself and his two children that the world is still a place full of light and laughter even in the darkest of times. His natural charm and softer side comes through, making him perfect for the role. He’s a real, average guy trying to get over the loss of his wife while keeping his family together. And so, when 14-year-old Dylan gets expelled from school in the wake of his mother’s death, Benjamin searches for a new beginning and fresh adventure to mend their broken hearts.
Most of us, if thrust into such unfortunate circumstances, would probably be completely ill equipped and unable to handle it. But Benjamin Mee, instead of wallowing in the crazy predicament of losing his wife, does something equally as crazy: he buys a zoo. This excites Ben’s youngest child, Rosie, to no end, who at 7-years-old is able to lighten the heavy mood of the story at the most delightfully random moments (and absolutely steal every scene she appears in). It’s Dylan that proves to be the real problem, who is old enough to slip into a depressive, artistic funk that makes him hate the world, his father most of all. It’s that fractured relationship between father and son that’s the real conflict in “We Bought a Zoo”; the hundred-plus species and colorful assortment of zookeepers provide an exciting backdrop to a family in peril as they all band together to keep the failing zoo alive.
“We Bought a Zoo” is not a romance in the traditional sense. Sure, Ben has a side-romance with the pleasantly and surprisingly down-to-earth Scarlett Johansson as Kelly Foster, and his son may or may not pair off with Kelly’s cousin, but the story winds up being less about romance and more about how to properly live our lives. It inspires hope in me that people still remember how to fall in love not only with each other, but with an idea, a place, or even life itself. And it does so in such an earnest and heartfelt way that even when it seems too much, we appreciate it because we can at least imagine a life in which things could be that cute. For all intents and purposes, “We Bought a Zoo” shouldn’t be a good film. It’s general plot is sillier than the average Disney Channel Original Movie, and while it flirts with the boundary of annoying ridiculousness that most Disney Channel shows stomp all over, “We Bought a Zoo” never goes overboard. The writing and dialogue is almost too cliché, but it sneaks by and offers a pleasantly PG experience by feeling so real, doing so by giving us all these naturally charming characters. It’s recklessly heartwarming to watch these characters succeed, and that’s why “We Bought a Zoo” works so well.
Perhaps the biggest gripe that I might have is that Dylan comes off as downright mean and his angst seems more typical of his age than genuinely caused by the death of his mother, but at the end of the day, who am I to judge? We all grieve in different ways. With some of us, like Dylan, it takes more time. In one of the best scenes of the film, when Ben and Dylan are attempting a reconciliation, the father offers the son some choice advice that we all should take to heart to add a little courage, flair, and excitement to our lives:
“You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”
All in all, I loved “We Bought a Zoo”. In the end of 2011, “The Muppets” was our feel-good movie, and now we’ve got this one. I say keep ‘em coming because there’s nothing I love more than walking out of the movie theater with a big smile plastered to my face.
PS. The soundtrack is awesome.