We Bought a Zoo

Review by Dan Stewart

Directed by

Cameron Crowe

Starring

Elle Fanning Matt Damon Scarlett Johansson

Anticipation.

Cameron Crowe does a family movie. Could be cheesy.

Enjoyment.

Good God, it is cheesy. But tasty cheese.

In Retrospect.

A warm, Sunday-afternoon-in-the-park type of movie, if that’s your thing.

The type of old-fashioned family entertainment that Generation Xers would’ve tossed their stale bong water at.

Ever wonder what happened to Generation X? Here’s an answer: they bought zoos. The grungy, flannel-wearing 1990s archetypes got rich, settled down, bought homes and started families. Now in their forties, they oversee menageries of kids and dogs in their comfy suburban enclosures, staying ‘with it’ by looping Bon Iver and Sigur Rós in the car.

It’s not a bad life for this ripening generation, especially when Cameron Crowe, who encapsulated the 1990s with movies like Singles and Jerry Maguire, has made a film just for them.

Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a middle-aged journalist and father of two, has recently lost his wife to cancer. Struggling to cope, he decides almost on a whim to buy a rundown zoo in rural California. With the help of his seven-year-old daughter Rosie, and despite the protests of his 14-year-old son Dylan, Mee pours both his money and his soul into the zoo, bonding with its animals and quirky staff, including comely zookeeper Kelly Foster (an authentically de-glamorised Scarlett Johansson). The race is on to spruce up and re-open the zoo to the public before Mee’s funds – and his family’s patience – runs out.

We Bought a Zoo is exactly the type of old-fashioned family entertainment that Generation Xers would’ve tossed their stale bong water at. It’s a low-key, sun-filled movie about bonding with your family and following your dreams, buoyed by a relentlessly uplifting soundtrack and with little room for irony or self-aware humour. Crowe has never been one to skimp on the cheese, and there are mawkish moments, especially with Mee’s cutesy daughter, that may have you reaching for the sick bag.

Cynical Millennials take note, however: this movie isn’t for you. It’s for families raised by the generation that came before. Mee is a classic 1970s kid, a carefree adventurer who came of age in prosperity and never had to worry about a thing until the day his wife died.

It’s not hard to imagine reformed Gen Xers nodding in recognition at his journey to maturity – not to mention the sensitively drawn antagonism between Mee and his son, Dylan. And for the kids? Well, there’s plenty of cute animals and a genuinely touching subplot between Dylan and an admirer (an endearingly gawky Elle Fanning) who lives at the zoo. Parents wearied by dire family movies may also be relieved to learn there are no farting monkeys or rapping rhinos here.

But it’s hard to shake the suspicion that We Bought a Zoo might best be enjoyed as a wish fulfillment fantasy for disillusioned fortysomething dads. Someday, it suggests, you too can get away from it all, bond with your kids, succeed against all the odds. And maybe score with ScarJo, too.

Published 15 Mar 2012

Tags: Cameron Crowe Elle Fanning Matt Damon Scarlett Johansson

Anticipation.

Cameron Crowe does a family movie. Could be cheesy.

Enjoyment.

Good God, it is cheesy. But tasty cheese.

In Retrospect.

A warm, Sunday-afternoon-in-the-park type of movie, if that’s your thing.

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