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We Bought a Zoo / *** (PG)

Posted Friday, December 9, 2011, at 11:29 AM

Mat Damon buys a zoo to reconnect with his kids after the death of his wife in the new movie "We Bought a Zoo". Opening Dec. 23.
20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Cameron Crowe. Written by Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe. Based on the book by Benjamin Mee. Running time: 124 min. Rated PG (for language and some thematic elements).

Fatherhood has been the most demanding and frustrating thing I've ever done in my life. It's also more rewarding than anyone can imagine. I know that sounds oh so clich. There's nothing worse than a parent spouting off about the hardships and rewards of parenting, but it's really something that is impossible to express in words and impossible to understand without doing it.

One thing that would heighten the emotions of being a parent would be to loose your spouse and have to do it all by yourself while coping with the mourning process at the same time. I can't imagine having to do that. I think it would kill me, but in truth, it wouldn't. I'd survive no matter how painful it was. I don't know how, but that's what we do.

What writer/director Cameron Crowe does is somehow translate those deep emotions of love in an understandable way for an audience. "We Bought a Zoo" is Crowe's first feature in six years, following his first critical failure "Elizabethtown". That film's failure may have stemmed from the fact that Crowe was reproducing a formula without the necessary passion behind it. Working for the first time from someone else's screenplay and using real life source material, Crowe has found a subject he can be passionate about again.

"We Bought a Zoo" seems an almost innocuous subject matter for Crowe, who hit the ground running at the age of fifteen, touring the country with rock bands like The Allman Brothers and Led Zeppelin and writing for Rolling Stone magazine. The story of a widower who decides to buy a broken down zoo to restore and revitalize his relationship with his children seems like it could easily veer off into Disney Family Movie of the Week territory. Crowe isn't interested in telling a story where animals contain the magical healing properties for human interaction, however. This movie is more mature than that.

Matt Damon (the "Bourne" trilogy) plays the patriarch, Benjamin Mee, wounded by his wife's death, barely holding things together with his children, with no plan to escape from the daily rut created by the loss of the family's driving force. His relationship with his daughter, Rosie--charmingly portrayed by Maggie Elizabeth Jones ("Footloose")--is flourishing. Pay attention to what Benjamin sees as his responsibility to her as a parent during a speech late in the movie. Wow. What a dad!

Meanwhile, Benjamin's connection with his teenage son, Dylan (Colin Ford, "Supernatural"), is growing more tenuous. When Dylan is expelled from school and Benjamin quits his reporting gig for being handled with kid gloves by his editor, a change is forced. They go house shopping, and find the "perfect" house. There's one hitch, it's attached to a small zoo and can only be sold to a buyer interested in keeping up the property as an animal sanctuary. Notice how Crowe handles the character of the Realtor (J.B. Smoove, "Curb Your Enthusiasm"). Although he's a minor character, he's given a full treatment while they travel in the car to the properties. This pays off later when he has to explain the stipulations on the house sale.

Of course, Benjamin's brother, Duncan, tries to tell him what a bad investment buying a zoo would be. Thomas Haden Church ("Sideways") does a good job imbuing Duncan with genuine concern for his brother's well being. There's a sense that they've been doing this brother dance all their lives and know how little effect they'll have on each other's judgment. The staff of the zoo also doubts Benjamin's dedication to the animals. Scarlett Johansson ("Iron Man 2") is probably too pretty to be a realistic representation of the head zookeeper, Kelly Foster, who sees the spark in Benjamin that everyone else is missing. Johansson is nice too look at, but she also makes us believe in what her character sees in the animals and in Benjamin. The women get Damon, its only fair that Johansson be there for the rest of us.

There is a villain of sorts in the form of a zoo inspector, played with cold severity by John Michael Higgins ("Bad Teacher"). He's the kind of guy who thinks he's an integral part of keeping the world order functioning. I like how Crowe has him drive so recklessly, but never has anyone point it out. It's just one of those things you see in life. There are people like that and we accept it without bothering to fight it.

This plot synopsis hardly suggests how well this movie is made. Crowe's attention to details, even concerning the supporting characters, helps flesh what could be a standard family film into something more. While the television ads have been selling this as a typical family film experience, it isn't. Both Crowe and Damon were determined that the material here did not go down the Disney route of turning the animals of the zoo into cute personalities or allowing the father's relationship with his children slide into schmaltz. Screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna ("The Devil Wears Prada") achieves this by keeping the focus squarely on the father's determination to make his new life situation work for him and his children.

As usual Crowe fills his movie soundtrack with an incredible array of music from classic rock and current alternative artists. His knack for finding just the right song to punctuate his characters' feelings is matched by his ability to hold the right shot and cut away at the right time for the perfect emotional moment. Like Crowe's "Jerry Maguire", "We Bought a Zoo" hits your heart at just the right spot and allows you to connect in a very personal way to what is really a very unusual true story.

"We Bought a Zoo" will open at Marshall Cinema and Galaxy Cinema on Friday, Dec. 23.

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Andrew is a professionally trained actor and stage director. He was a reporter for the daily newspaper The Marshall Democrat News. He has been critiquing film since Mr. Lucas released the first of his "Star Wars" prequels in 1999. His reviews can also be seen at his blog site.
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