Sunday, December 25, 2011

All Creatures Great and Small: A Movie That Growls “Merry Christmas”

There are several moments in We Bought a Zoo that may be reminiscent of a far better film also about a man with a plan who arrives in a remote town and is charmed by the eccentric people living there. Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero, which came out in 1983, was set on the coast of Scotland. Peter Riegert played a conflicted oil company executive way back then and he appears all too briefly as a newspaper editor in the current release, directed by Cameron Crowe. The star this time around is Matt Damon, portraying a recently widowed journalist named Benjamin Mee fleeing Los Angeles and arriving somewhere in rural Southern California with his two children.

Newspapers throughout the nation are withering away, plus Benjamin’s adventure beat becomes too difficult to maintain because it requires a lot of traveling. With two kids to raise on his own, he simply quits the job. Meanwhile, his brooding 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford) has just been expelled from school for stealing and their city home is plagued by noisy neighbors. A real estate agent shows several properties to him and his precocious daughter Rosie, (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, cute enough to stop mugging for the cameras already!). But none are right for them until they spot a ramshackle country house on 18 gorgeous acres – and adjacent to an almost-defunct Rosemoor Wildlife Park, in dire need of renovation and revival. The family also desperately in need of revival suddenly must contend with lions and tigers and bears. Oh, my.

At age seven, of course Rosie is immediately entranced by the animals. Her brother Dylan? Not so much. Forever drawing vividly gruesome sketches, he’s too angry with the world after the death of his mother Katherine (Stephanie Szostak, seen in flashbacks) from cancer to envision what moving on might mean. The process of mourning is captured in all its painful nuances. On the upside, the Mees encounter an array of oddball caretakers and related characters:

Scarlett Johansson and Matt Damon
– Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), the nominal head zookeeper clearly destined to revive Benjamin’s love life.
– Her niece Lily Miska (Elle Fanning), a teen immediately attracted to the oblivious Dylan.
– Peter MacCready (Angus Macfadyen), a burly Scotsman with a taste for alcohol who inhabits the sort of gentle giant role carved out by Robbie Coltrane's Hagrid in the Harry Potter franchise. He’s the exhibit designer.
– Robin Jones (Patrick Fugit, the bewildered protagonist in Crowe’s far superior Almost Famous and a terrifically enigmatic presence here, despite being given only a few lines of dialogue) is the zoo handyman.
– Crystal, the well-dressed capuchin monkey Robin always carries on his shoulder steals the show, especially when she helpfully hands him a screwdriver. This is a throwaway moment, barely noticeable, but quite possibly the funniest in the film.
– Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins, hilariously paired with Jane Lynch in Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind) is the designated villain, the state inspector who threatens to keep the zoo from reopening over even the most trivial infractions.
– Duncan Mee (Thomas Haden Church, slightly less wacky than as Paul Giamatti’s sidekick in Sideways) is Benjamin’s brother, always trying to talk him out of saving the zoo.

Cast of We Bought A Zoo
But saving Rosemoor is a given in this fairly predictable Rocky for the metrosexual demographic. Saving the proceedings from schmaltz seems much more difficult, no matter how hard the talented acting ensemble tries. Based on a true story from England described in a 2008 memoir by the real Benjamin Mee, the motion picture version tugs at the heartstrings whether exploring the anguish of the fauna or the homo sapiens. Should Spar, an elderly Bengal tiger, be allowed to die with dignity? Can building a bigger enclosure – not to be called a cage! – pacify a grizzly yearning for freedom? Will Lily’s rather aggressive adolescent crush win over the disaffected Dylan? Is Benjamin’s folly likely to bring him success and heal his wounded soul?

Crowe, who co-wrote the screenplay with Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, 2006), delivers an obvious holiday crowd-pleaser. The stunning cinematography, courtesy of Diego Prieto (Brokeback Mountain, 2005), contributes to the illusion that this is a significant cultural milestone, as do soundtrack songs by Tom Petty, Neil Young, Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan and Jonsi (a.k.a. Jon Thor Birgisson, lead singer of Iceland’s Sigur Ros – who also composed the score).

Yet, Say Anything (1989) or Jerry Maguire (1996), it ain’t. We Bought a Zoo certainly lacks the depth of Almost Famous, arguably Crowe’s best effort to date and a semi-autobiographical account of his days as a fledgling Rolling Stone reporter. Don’t even mention Vanilla Sky (2001) in the same category. During the last six years, he’s been out of the public eye, except for two music documentaries earlier in 2011 (HBO’s Pearl Jam Twenty and The Union, about Elton John and Leon Russell).

Oh, well. This is Christmas, when the other options include such heavy-duty new fare as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Darkest Hour and even Steven Spielberg’s epic War Horse. The season to be jolly probably is going to welcome a jolly tale of critters and the crazy folks who love them in a warm, (literally) fuzzy environment, all aiming for feel-good emotions. At one point in the Rosemoor saga, Kelly refers to Benjamin as “our local hero,” so perhaps Crowe intended an homage to Bill Forsyth’s classic and hired Peter Riegert to reinforce that idea. While the conventional We Bought a Zoo has no real kinship to the iconic, ironic Local Hero, at least it spotlights the superior work ethic of a little monkey with moxie.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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