Tuesday, April 3, 2012

We Bought A Zoo: My take on the movie starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson

3 Reasons you might HATE this movie



 Here are three reasons you shouldn't see this movie:

1) If you're dying to see Matt Damon running through the streets of some exotic locale, gun in hand, a la Bourne, you will hate this movie.

2) If you're aching to see Scarlett Johansson in a steamy sex scene, you will hate this movie.
3) If you read the book by Benjamin Mee and demand the film duplicate the book, you will hate this movie.

The film, thank God, is nothing like the book. Okay, maybe I'm overstating. I actually liked the book but I LOVED the movie. While the book was interesting with its stories of animal dentistry, it fell short because of Benjamin Mee's inability to put his emotion on the page. Thankfully writer Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe took the dramatic elements of his story, changed them, expanded them, and put the emotion on the screen for him.


The 'true story' is that Mee's wife tragically died of cancer, leaving him with two little children, and a zoo to open. The zoo, you see, was already owned by Mee when his wife died. The film would have it that Mee bought the zoo, after she died, in order to recover from his wife's death. Not true. But the cinematic dramatic version is soooo much more satisfying. Purists be damned, this movie IS better than the book.
In fact, kudos to the producer who saw the heart of the story buried within Mee's memoir for seeing the opportunities it held.
In the film, Kelly the zookeeper (Scarlett Johansson) is a strong but untrained pro-animal advocate who has a crush on Damon's Benjamin Mee. In the book, there's no crush, no lingering looks, no joking over beers, no heart to heart talks. The reel story is much more satisfying that the real story.
In the film, Mee's son, Dylan (Colin Ford) is angry following his mother's death, drawing horrible pictures and getting tossed out of school. Thank heavens for the power of love and lovely Elle Fanning. In the book, he's a much younger boy, upset but barely mentioned. Thank heavens they aged him forward! Film again trounces book.

The fact that Crowe moved the "zoo" from the UK to California, and changed Benjamin Mee's nationality from Enlish to American would normally be the kind of thing that would really tick me off. And if I was Benjamin Mee I would be furious, make that "Bloody furious!" But once Cameron Crowe was attached to direct, no way this would be a British film - which could have been lovely and probably more honest and gritty - no,with Cameron Crowe attached, it would be all-American. Here's what that means.


We Americans like our dramas full of rain that turns to sunshine, sad that comes out happy, filled with turn your frown upside down mentality. American audiences like to leave theatres feeling fantastic.

And that's what We Bought A Zoo does. A dramedy suitable for the whole family with Matt Damon pulling off a greiving dad trying to raise a couple of grieving kids. Cameron Crowe pulls the camera in nice and close and lets us see the emotions flicker over Damon's face, fill his eyes. There are several scenes, among them the one where he talks with Spar, the dying Siberian tiger, another where he has a gut-wrenching shouting match with his son, where his helplessness just completely got me. The budding relationship with Scarlett Johansson was exactly right; no sex please, the wife's barely been dead a year! As was the sweet friendship between Lily (Elle Fanning) and Dylan. Sweet, innocent, it will remind you of your first love. The youngest actor, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, playing Rosie, Mee's little girl, lights up the screen and is just so authentic and adorable without being cloying.

The rest of the supporting cast including Thomas Haden Church who provides his usual deadpan comic relief - are good if sometimes they err on the side of overdone. The thing is we forgive the occasional over the top performance (never from Damon or Johansson or any of the key players) because the payoff - hope, success, happiness is just so fantastic!





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