The title is about as self-explanatory as possible, and it’s fair to say that Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo delivers exactly what it suggests — the kid-friendly tale of a family that buys a zoo. And since this is a movie, not only is the family dysfunctional, so is the zoo, so are its employees, and, indeed, so are some of the animals. Taken within the confines of such a set-up, I have to say that the film is reasonably successful. It’s pleasant enough. It’s never annoying. Its contrivances are no worse than you’d expect — sometimes maybe a little better, in fact. That said, the words that most come to mind in considering We Bought a Zoo are “bland” and “undistinguished.” At the same time, it’s hard to actually dislike.
Perhaps the only surprising thing about the film is its pedigree. Just exatly what are Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson and Thomas Haden Church doing in this movie? It’s not that they don’t all have worse movies on their resumes, but this is such an obviously low-wattage affair that the appeal for them to sign on is hard to see. Cameron Crowe’s involvement is more explicable — to make an inoffensive little picture that wouldn’t get critically trounced like Elizabethtown (2005) did. In that, he succeeded. He also managed to leave his fingerprints all over the famililar material. You suspect you’re in Crowe country when the hero is a former journalist, and you truly know you’re there when Cat Stevens’ “Don’t Be Shy” pops up on the soundtrack (the first of several outbursts of vintage pop/rock music). Then again, I’m not sure I want to consider why Elle Fanning plays a kid who looks like she’ll turn into Penny Lane from Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000) in a few years.
That the movie is based on a real family with a real zoo is of little import, since the whole thing has been moved from England to California and very movie’d up. The characters — especially the supporting ones — are of the sort that just don’t exist in real life. But, hey, it’s a nice little movie that means well, and it’s not hard to sit through. Faint praise, yes, but I can think of worse ways to fritter away two hours. The screenplay gets a small point from me for including a line that refers to Altered States—and there’s no denying that the film gets off lighter than it might have for simian value. Rated PG for language and some thematic elements.