I love Cameron Crowe. He’s one of my favourite directors. Almost Famous is among my top five movies of all time, and I even enjoy his “lesser” films like Elizabethtown and Singles quite a bit. So when I heard that he was releasing a new movie last year, I was excited. Sure, the premise didn’t sound too exciting (a family buys an abandoned zoo and tries to get it back up and running), but anything Crowe is going to grab my interest. My faith waned a little bit thanks to a fairly sappy looking trailer, and the eventual response to the film (lukewarm reviews, and a general lack of interest from the public). But I went out and saw it today, and I’ll go as far as to say that this is a great film.
Okay, first of all, I will say that We Bought a Zoo has its flaws. It’s a family film, and at times, things get a little to precious and predictable. Some jokes fall flat, and some of the minor characters feel more like caricatures. But none of that really mattered to me in the end, because the film has so much heart. The relationship between Matt Damon’s character and his children is very warm, and as an viewer, you’re really rooting for them to make everything work out.
Speaking of Matt Damon, he is great here. It’s a mature, varied performance, and he plays a father very well. He hits the right emotions, and he brings a lot of warmth to the screen. Thomas Hayden Church also stands out as his brother, adding a lot of humour, and also sympathy to the character. The biggest surprise in the cast for me was Colin Ford, who plays Damon’s 14-year-old son. He’s very convincing as a moody, grieving teenager, and he brings the right combination of petulance and pathos to his portrayal. I was unfamiliar with Ford as an actor, but his screen presence here has me convinced that I’ll be seeing a lot more of him. Elle Fanning is also luminous in a smaller role. She’s proven to be highly charismatic and charming in films like Somewhere and Super 8, and she does similarly great work here with more limited screen time here. It’s also worth noting that this is one of Scarlett Johansson’s best performances. Her character is very well-defined by Crowe, and Johansson picks up on the nuances well.
As with all Cameron Crowe films, We Bought a Zoo also has a great soundtrack. Crowe digs out lots of old favourites, including Neil Young and Bob Dylan, but he also uses Bon Iver’s “Holocene” to nice effect. It’s also great to hear Temple of Dog’s “Hunger Strike” pop up, which is a neat little nod to Crowe’s love of 90’s grunge. Sigur Ros’ Jonsi also provides an original score the film, which is fantastic. It’s triumphant and uplifting, and that score adds a lot of emotional heft to several scenes. Crowe is a master of music, and the soundtrack is always one of my favourite elements of his films.
We Bought a Zoo is certainly trying to pull on your heartstrings, and for me, it worked. It’s lovely and simple, and sometimes that’s the best kind of film. A shorter run time could have made the film a bit tighter, yet I never felt bored. I find it very difficult for a film to keep my interest for the whole duration, but We Bought a Zoo did that.