Matt charms while Scarlett smoulders in We Bought a Zoo

Mar 16, 2012

You may not buy the happy ending, but it's hard to resist characters this appealing

What you need to know
We Bought a Zoo is a comedy drama based on a memoir by British journalist and author Benjamin Mee, about a family who take over a dilapidated zoo. The film, directed by Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) and co-written by Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada), transplants the story from Dartmoor to California.
Matt Damon plays the recently widowed Benjamin, who quits his job as a newspaperman and starts life afresh, buying a house for his two children that comes with a zoo. The zoo staff, who include Scarlett Johansson, help Ben renovate the zoo so he can open it to the public. Thomas Haden Church, the Oscar-nominated co-star of Sideways, plays Benjamin's brother.
What the critics like
Matt Damon gives a soulful, tender performance as recently widowed dad-of-two Benjamin, says Cath Clarke in Time Out. He anchors this happy-sad feelgood drama, which is more concerned with insights about family than romance. It's "heart-on-sleeve touching if you've got a sweet tooth for the stickier stuff".
Crowe has rediscovered the sure commercial hand that he demonstrated in Jerry Maguire, says David Denby in The New Yorker. Johansson gives the likeable Damon enough smouldering looks to "ignite a pile of damp leaves", and at last, he responds. Hollywood has so few examples of normal romantic behaviour these days that this "slow, hesitating, unremarkable but warming courtship feels like a revelation".
The creaks, groans and clichés of the screenplay are outstripped by the attractiveness of the performers, says Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. You may not buy the happy ending, "but it's a seductive ideal when all of God's creatures, great and small, buxom and blond, exist in such harmony".
What they don't like
Crowe is never at his best building momentum in narratives and the ups and downs of the zoo are never really compelling, says Ian Freer in Empire. We Bought a Zoo is "the antithesis of edgy", and despite Crowe's integrity and lightness of touch it "doesn't deliver the emotional experience" of his best films.

Perhaps it's churlish to complain about a filmmaker who pours so much into each movie, says Dan Kois at Slate. But this over-long, over-feeling, over-directed film can make you "glad to return to the real world, where things aren't quite so simple".
The metaphors about grief, moving on and the importance of new beginnings get a little heavy-handed in places, says Matthew Turner on View London. "You're never really in any doubt as to where the story is going, but it's an enjoyable enough journey nonetheless."

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