Starring Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church.
Directed by Cameron Crowe.
Classification: PG (Mild themes and infrequent coarse language), 123 mins.
Set in Southern California, a father moves his young family to the countryside to renovate and re-open a struggling zoo.
Andrew L Urban
Grief driven young widower buys a rural property on a whim 6 months after his wife's death - the place has a private zoo on it. Is this wise? No, says his older brother Duncan Mee (Thomas Haden Church), but Benjamin (Matt Damon) ignores the advice and takes his two children to the zoo. Little Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) loves it, but her older brother Dylan (Colin Ford) hates it. But then Dylan has been having father-son issues, and feels unloved and angry.
So begins the story based on real events, in which an attempted escape from the pain of life leads to pain of a different kind - and finally to acceptance. Damon is in fine form as the young father who is at a loss what to do with either the little girl or his teenage son, or indeed his life. Tiny Jones is wonderful as the cute little girl, wiser than her years but just short of precocious, and Ford is tops as the angry young boy, who eventually finds his father has some rather useful words of wisdom for him. Hayden Church is his likeable larrikin self as the older brother with a wry way of offering guidance - and reality checks which Benjamin ignores.
Scarlett Johansson is lively and natural as the head keeper of the zoo animals in a role that doesn't demand much - but it has to be right. Elle Fanning is a sparkling presence with her flashlight smile as the teenager who has a crush on Dylan. Great support from the rest of the cast, and that includes all the animals, from a grisly bear to a lion, from a porcupine to a capuchin monkey - and many others.
There is a useful bar around which the characters gather at times, but we don't know where it is in relation to the house. Nor do we learn where the pizza delivery comes from as we're repeatedly told the nearest shops are 9 miles away.
It may not be as complete a film as Cameron Crowe's Jerry Maguire or Almost Famous, but this endearing story about a family buying a private zoo offers more drama than the images of its photogenic animals might suggest
After a six-year break, Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire) delivers an uplifting tale that has heart, humanity and a warmly empathetic central performance from Matt Damon. To quote his character, “It has lots of cool animals too.”
Using British journalist Benjamin Mee’s memoir as a loose template, the screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) shifts the story from England to Southern California.
Mee bought a zoo while his wife was undergoing treatment for a brain tumor. The film begins six months after her death with Benjamin (Damon) still crushed but looking to make a fresh start for their kids, teenage Dylan (Colin Ford) and 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). When brooding Dylan is expelled from school for theft, Benjamin quits his job at a Los Angeles newspaper and starts shopping for properties outside the city.
Against the advice of his older brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), Benjamin spends his inheritance on a run-down zoo. Long closed to the public, it nonetheless comes with some 200 animals and a motley handful of unpaid staff, led by zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson).
The principal narrative driver is the mission to get the money pit of a zoo up to inspection standards in time for a planned reopening. The film is not without contrivance or cliché, but the characters are drawn with enough sincerity to make the script’s manipulations forgivable.
As always in Crowe’s films, music plays a crucial role in shaping mood. That goes for the lilting tunes by composer Jónsiof Icelandic cult band Sigur Rós, and the eclectic song selection, which shuffles oldies-but-goodies with contemporary tracks.
Bottom Line: Cameron Crowe’s film has some rough edges, but it ultimately delivers thanks to Matt Damon’s moving performance. [EDITED]
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