(First published 19th April 2012)
It was only a month or two ago that I was sitting in the darkness of my local cinema, leaning over to my friend and very blatantly rolling my eyes before peering up at the screen with slightly exaggerated disgust. We were watching the trailer for Cameron Crowe’s We Bought a Zoo, which to me looked like homogenised sentimental slush, and I was rolling my eyes to the morons that had decided to make it, and then also to the morons who were paying to see it. However, the trailer perhaps does not do it justice, relying on the invasive Sigur Ros soundtrack to punch you in the face with emotion and using a snippet of each syrupy moment from its two hour duration to lure you in. What I found instead is a film that is at least a little bit smarter than its promo material, which is even at times quite funny.
We Bought a Zoo, based on a true story (what isn’t these days?), follows the tale of widower Benjamin Mee as he and his two children up sticks and move to a new home in order to escape the heartache from the recent passing of their wife and mother. As you may have guessed – unlike our baffled protagonist – this home comes with a freebie: a zoo. Cue predictable calamities and mishaps as the family try to adjust their townie tendencies to make way for zoo living, along with various romantic endeavours – one in particular for the young teen market, complete with a rainy kiss scene.
As a whole, and despite my cynicism, the film is good. There were many times where I felt genuinely moved, and many others where I was actually rooting for Benjamin and his family; the film allows for its audiences to engage with its characters. The child actors are also generally bearable, even Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who gives a strangely likeable performance as seven-year-old Rosie. The characters were mostly affable, including to some extent Johansson’s Kelly, reminding us that the actress can still act, and rendering that hideous Dolce and Gabbana perfume advert a mere distant and embarrassing memory.
However, let’s not sing too highly its praises, for there are flaws. The first and most unforgivable is the irritating use of the aforementioned Sigur Ros, which oozes and squirms throughout the whole soundtrack like a whiney drone. I have no problem whatsoever with the atmospheric talents of this Icelandic band, but it would be nice to believe that today’s audiences are clever enough to connect with the emotive storylines and characters without having the soundtrack slap it into their faces. Music in film can work so poetically and wonderfully, and even its manipulation over a viewer may be rewarded with commendation rather than condemnation (Hermann’s famous score in the shower scene of Hitchcock’s Psycho, for example, as one of the most obvious but effective examples), but there is a fine line between doing it well and simply using it as a cheap tactic. Even the band’s frontman, Jónsi Birgisson, admits the hit song ‘Hoppipolla’ has been “raped” by British television. His words, not mine, but considering its appearance in the climax of We Bought a Zoo, it looks like this has crossed grounds to the film world, too.
The romantic strands also perhaps appear a little overexerted. The growing relationship between Benjamin and Kelly – obvious and predictable from their very first encounter – is maybe a little unbelievable given Benjamin’s status as a heartbroken widower, and the dreamy romance between Benjamin’s fourteen-year-old son, Dylan, and the zoo employee, Lily, is enough to make one’s skin crawl. Lily, played by Elle Fanning, appears intensely cringeworthy in her efforts with Dylan, but then maybe this is justifiable as simply the embarrassing and awkward nature of teenage courting – an uncomfortable truth that we all want to forget and thoroughly overlook, only to sneer at later in life.
A film of this nature, a family film about animals, immediately subjects itself to various preconceptions. However, We Bought a Zoo is not as sugary or as brainless as it initially appears. There are many points when Crowe tries to thrust various elements of the story into our faces, and there is no denying that a ‘true story’ – what was actually originally about the plight of an Englishman in Devon – has been given the all-round Hollywood gloss. It is also not completely devoid of sickliness, of which there are numerous examples, but in the context of the wider narrative, these become almost bearable. By and large, it is a pleasant and harmless film, which is peppered with moments that may make you laugh and moments that will move you – perhaps not to the brink of tears; this may depend on you being either a fanatic animal lover or an eleven year old girl. It is important to note that throughout the film, I still often leant over to roll my eyes, but a great deal less than I would have imagined. I might therefore suggest that my main criticism is, in fact, my own cynicism.