Someone once decided that Christmas is the perfect time for a sentimental movie about family issues, redemption, or heartwarming comedy. It does seem to be a natural fit, and it is good counter-programing to the big blockbusters and Oscar bait that get released about the same time each year. Unfortunately for every, “Cast Away”, “Lemony Snicket”, or “It’s Complicated”, there are an equal if not greater number of misses. Films like, “Toys”, “Seven Pounds”, “How Do You Know?” have been big misses with film-makers that have proven track records but could not quite get it done. “We Bought A Zoo” seems to fall more on the side of a miss than a hit. There are a lot of things going for it; it stars Matt Damon and Scarlett Johanssen, it is written and directed by Cameron Crowe, and it is based on a true story. Still it can’t quite work because it tries so hard to be in that niche, it feels inauthentic.
The problem as I see it is that there are just too many themes and issues stuffed into this movie. There are two love stories for the main character, one for a secondary character, a father-son redemption story, a comedy about the characters that populate a zoo, an allegory about an aging tiger, and the little zoo that can story that contains them all. It just feels like this movie is constantly hitting you over the head with the need to be charming and to be loved. As a result, the focus of the story is hardly on the zoo at all, it is on a lead character who can’t let go of the life that he has lost. It is a life that we are only given short flashbacks on, and we have to rely on the characters to tell us how wonderful it was, we never really get to see it (except for one bit at the very end of the movie).
One other problem I had was the casting of the lead. Matt Damon is a good actor and there is nothing he does here to hurt the film. The difficulty is that he is so good looking and accomplished that it is hard to buy into the self doubt he has in a lot of scenes. The one scene where he tells his children about meeting his wife, he says that the thing he said to her was “why would someone like you ever talk to someone like me?” I will put it to any women reading this right now, can you think of a reason you might talk to a guy who looks exactly like Matt Damon when he first approaches you? Oh and by the way, he is asking this while he smiles shyly and blinks those big blue eyes.
Things happen in the movie that only happen in movies, and they only happen the way they do in a movie. The story suddenly demands that Damon’s character come up with a extra $100,000, after he has been spending without consideration from the beginning. Guess what, that amount of money falls into his lap at exactly the right moment and we get one of the defining decisions that the character keeps making in the story. Will he buy the zoo?, Will he kiss the girl?, Will he decide to spend the money that he comes into in the right way?, Will he finally open the slideshow of his dead wife?, Will he have a defining moment with his son?, Will he step up for the animals in a tough situation?. There are so many set ups and payoffs that it feels like a tennis match at times, Serve and then return and then again.
Crowe also highlights all of this with his signature collection of song cues. Some work fine but others are cloying or repeat the same sad winsome moment over and over again. People accuse John Williams of being heavy handed with an original score, Crowe manages to do the same thing with bits and pieces of contemporary music and classic rock. This is not a bad movie. You will be entertained and charmed at times. It is simply not a great movie and the reasons it is not great are always too apparent. Years from now, someone will have a hard time remebering this film, just like you probably have no recall of “We’re No Angels”. Another holiday film that tried but was just not worth keeping in your head.