WE BOUGHT A ZOO:  Worth A Ticket – Cameron Crowe Pays His Dues and Keeps His Dignity
There’s a classic line in Albert Brooks’s incredibly prescient 1979 Real Life where Brooks, as the prototype of a reality-television director, tries to decide whether to do something unethical.  His rationalization for going ahead:  “What are they going to do–put me in movie jail?”
Of course there really is a movie jail, but it’s not about ethical shakiness–you’re sentenced there if your movies flop.  And there’s little chance of appeal, no matter how pristine your prior record has been.  Cameron Crowe has given us such classics as Say Anything…, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, but he’s been in movie jail since 2005, when he committed the felony known as Elizabethtown, a purported romantic-comedy that combined dreadful reviews (28% on Rotten Tomatoes) with awful boxoffice ($27M in domestic gross).  As you’d expect, there’s only one way for him to win his freedom now:  make a hit.

WE BOUGHT A ZOO is Crowe’s petition to the parole board, an amiable, fairly smart and quite charming big-tent family movie for the holidays.  Based on the British writer Benjamin Mee’s memoir, and written for the screen by Crowe with Aline Brosh McKenna (who on the one hand wrote The Devil Wears Prada and on the other was responsible for I Don’t Know How She Does It), the Mee of Crowe’s movie has been relocated to Southern California and turned into Matt Damon.  Benjamin and his children Dylan and Rosie (Colin Ford and Maggie Elizabeth Jones) are at loose ends after the death of their wife and mother, and when Benjamin quits his job and decides to relocate, they impulsively buy a house that comes attached to a dilapidated, privately-owned zoo.  (In real life, the family first bought the zoo and after that Mee’s wife became fatally ill, which would have made for a less cheerful movie.)  They find themselves responsible for operating it and for dealing with the motley team of suspicious zoo employees, headed by Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) and including Patrick Fugit, Elle Fanning, Angus MacFadyen and Carla Gallo.
Naturally the zoo has to be brought up to code if it’s to re-open, and naturally it has to re-open if the adorable animals are to be kept, and naturally there’s a drop-deadline by which that has to happen and an officious inspector (John Michael Higgins) who’s impervious to the heart-tugging efforts of the family and crew.  This is the kind of movie that pretends to have suspense, but everyone knows the ending is thoroughly preordained (maybe a Lars von Trier version would work out differently), so the point isn’t so much the destination as the journey.
Luckily for everyone, Cameron Crowe can do heartfelt like nobody’s business, and even at its most predictable and cloying, We Bought A Zoo is enormously likable.  Just when things are getting too sentimental, Crowe and McKenna will have Ben’s world-weary brother (Thomas Haden Church) show up, or get us to a surprisingly tough-minded argument between Benjamin and his son.  The dialogue is often sharp and amusing, and it can deliver strong emotion when it’s time for the movie to land its heavy punches.
One of Crowe’s greatest skills has always been his work with actors–it’s remarkable how many of the performances given in his films rank with the best of those actors’ careers, from John Cusack in Say Anything…, to Kate Hudson in Almost Famous, to Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire.  Damon underplays beautifully here, a self-effacing piece of work that illuminates the performances of his co-stars.  Even de-glamorized, it’s not hard to figure out what Johanssen is ultimately doing in the story, but Crowe and McKenna smartly push romance to the back of the movie’s mind, and Johanssen gives a flinty, believable performance.  Colin Ford is strong as Ben’s resentful son, and he has the great good fortune of sharing scenes with Elle Fanning, as luminous a young presence as any on screen these days.  The rest of the cast is populated by charmers, with Haden Chuch particularly good at hitting Crowe and McKenna’s lines out of the park.
Zoo is also a lovely piece of craft, with glowing photography by Rodrigo Prieto, an easygoing pace set by editor Mark Livolsi,  and of course, this being Cameron Crowe, a great musical combination of score by Jonsi and selected songs.
We Bought A Zoo is, to be sure, shallow and obvious–you won’t learn much of anything about the real-life challenges, let alone the moral issues, of zoo operation.  Plot turns are convenient and sometimes generic.  But there’s nothing wrong with a little holiday warmth when it’s played right, and Crowe has earned his way out of his studio cage–er. enclosure.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."