We Bought A Zoo

DIRECTED BY: Cameron Crowe
WRITTEN BY: Aline Brosh McKenna, Cameron Crowe
STARRING: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johannson, Thomas Hadden Church, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones.
RATING: 3.5 stars

I was loving this film so much until the final 20 minutes threatened to ruin all the fun. It was like Walt Disney had sent Mickey Mouse to spread some sparkly magic over the film to give it a lame and ridiculous ending. Why couldn't they have kept it more realistically emotional and heartfelt? It really is a beautiful concept though, and a film worth seeing.

Based on a book written by Benjamin Mee, We Bought A Zoo tells the true story of Benjamin (Matt Damon) a journalist who has lost his wife to illness and is now struggling to raise their children Dylan (Colin Ford) and Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) alone. With Dylan struggling to stay focused at school, Benjamin decides to move his family to a new home and finds the perfect house away from the city. The only problem is that the house is on the property of a run-down zoo and if they want the house, they have to keep the animals too. The family then works with staff, including workaholic zoo keeper Kelly (Scarlett Johannson) to make sure the zoo is ready in time for its grand opening.

Writer and director Cameron Crowe has struggled in the past decade to give audiences an engaging film, but this is probably his best work since Jerry McGuire (because I controversially didn't like Almost Famous). It's not as good, but it explores the same sort of idea about finding value in your life and doing what you love. While the film is about a zoo, it's really about a family's struggle to cope with death. The zoo is just a tool and a catalyst to help the family move on after their tragic loss.

What makes the film really successful though is Matt Damon's convincing performance. Arguably Hollywood's most likeable actor, Damon plays the everyday man well. His character is a father torn between his grief over losing the love of his life and his desire to live an adventure with his children, who are also struggling to cope with the loss of their mother. There are some powerful scenes in the film in which Damon cries, yells and crumbles before our eyes, and his performance is memorable. One scene in particular with Ford is particularly moving and even realistically funny in the end.

Thomas Haden Church provides a lot of laughs as Duncan, Benjamin's older accountant brother, who is constantly telling him what a terrible idea it is to waste his money on a zoo. Speaking of comedic moments, this film does what The Zookeeper failed to do earlier this year - use animals in a funny way. Snakes let loose on zoo grounds, an escaped grizzly bear and a close encounter with a lion provide both laughs and poignant moments. Not to mention the powerful scenes with a sick tiger. Kudos also to Jones who must be the cutest little girl in Hollywood. She has some great scenes, especially when she blurts out personal facts to complete strangers.

We Bought A Zoo doesn't quite achieve everything it sets out to do, and I'm still trying to figure out who thought it was a good idea to cast Scarlett Johannson in this film, but it is a sweet summer indulgence for children and adults alike. If you love animals, you won't want to miss this film.