US director Cameron Crowe returns to narrative filmmaking this week with We Bought a Zoo (2012), giving the Hollywood treatment to the true story of British former Guardian journalist Benjamin Mee, who purchased a dilapidated zoo (in reality, Dartmoor Zoo, in the movie, Rosemoor Wildlife Park) with his family in order to save it from closure. The fact that this is yet another ‘loose’ dramatic interpretation of a factual series of events should help shield the implausibility that is inherent in the film, but there’s little defence for its overly-saccharine storytelling and faux-new age, anti-capitalist sensibilities.
Transferring the plot to the US, Mee (played in Crowe’s film by Matt Damon) is a struggling widower dissatisfied by his young family’s current inner-city locale. After quitting his job, Benjamin begins the arduous task of finding a new home, finally settling on a picturesque, remote house, complete with the rolling hills he so vocally desired. The only catch comes in the form of a barely functioning zoo attached to the property, complete with a skeleton crew of disenchanted keepers. Following his philosophy of ‘why not’, and viewing the venture as a potential fresh start for himself and his two children Dylan (Colin Ford) and Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), Mee takes on the challenging of refurbishing the enclosures in time for the zoo’s grand re-opening.
Unfortunately for We Bought a Zoo as a whole, Crowe seems unable to layer up the story’s sentimentalism with anything subtler than an industrial dumper truck. From the word go, Mee is firmly established as the epitome of adventure, willing to sacrifice a stable income and his children’s future financial stability for a ‘win or bust’ crash course in zoo management – despite the perfectly logical advise of Benjamin’s older brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church).
Subtlety (and indeed logic) has rarely been Hollywood’s strong suite, yet Crowe manages to over-egg the We Bought a Zoo pudding to such an extent that we’re left with little or no direct engagement with the original true story, the film’s predictable plot or its vaguely-drawn characters. Amongst Mee’s motley crew of animal enthusiasts is the attractive, potentially wife-replacing head keeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), her son-baiting teen niece Lily (Elle Fanning) and scotch-guzzling Scot Peter (Angus Macfadyen), all of whom appear to be tired character archetypes inserted at the bequest of a studio committee.
Even Crowe’s obvious musical leanings (following last year’s Pearl Jam Twenty and numerous other music video/documentary commissions) begin to overpower any narrative realism, with the Jónsi-powered soundtrack pushing all the buttons you’d expect, but with none of the heart it requires, and certainly wouldn’t look out of place inserted on a reality TV finale montage.
Beneath its cutesy, animal-centric exterior, there’s little to suggest that We Bought a Zoo would even work for younger audiences, weaned as they now are on sophisticated Pixar efforts that are undeniably more humorous and engaging. Peta vice president Lisa Lange has perhaps made the most damning review of the film, stating that it “conveys the misleading and downright dangerous message that no special knowledge – just a lot of heart – is needed to run a zoo.” Heart may be in plentiful supply (propelled by the death of Mee’s wife prior to the zoo’s purchase – where in reality she died after), but there’s not much else about this fluffy, Wild at Heart-esque tale to crow about – to coin a phrase from the film, its ‘happy is too loud’.