Delightful family drama

2012-01-25 00:00

WE Bought A Zoo is the latest film from acclaimed director Cameron Crowe (Say Anything, Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire). It is a well-crafted drama with ­moments of comedy, that gently unveils the emotions bound up in our sense of loss and how we ­attempt to come to terms with it.

Based on a true story, it involves the recently widowed Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), leaving town with his two ­children to take ownership of a dilapidated zoo. The zoo is populated with lions, tigers, zebras and animals that he knows nothing about, cared for by a group of eccentric minders. Buying and maintaining the zoo is a financially rash decision, but for Benjamin it is a way to escape the memories of the past. Gradually, however, Benjamin is faced with the prospect that there is no escape from loss as his money begins to run out, and the memories of his wife return to haunt him.

Thankfully, the zoo is merely a “MacGuffin” — as Hitchcock called it — a plot device on which to hang the more important emotional trajectories of the characters. We are thus, to a great extent, spared the cliched cutesy and exploitative anthropomorphising of animals that is best left to animations.

Damon’s portrayal of Benjamin is one of subtle shading. It is a role that moves from ­emotional solitude to explosive confrontation. At one moment, he may be viewing a photograph and exploring his internal pain, while in another moment he bristles with uncontrollable ­anger towards his rebellious son — a great performance by teenager Colin Ford.

Cameron Crowe brings a sense of realness and authenticity to his films, while always maintaining a sense of optimism. Thus, the romantic relationship that develops between Benjamin and zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) is slow burning — built of silences, unfinished conversations, misunderstanding and disconnectedness. All the while, we begin to realise the mutual acceptance between two lost souls that life is lived in the moment.

The film is not without flaws. The zoo inspector is overplayed for comedy and the animal minders come across as caricatures at times, but there is a wonderful cameo appearance by J. B. Smoove.

Not quite in the realm of ­Almost Famous, this is nevertheless a wonderful Cameron Crowe movie that once again shows his skills in finding small and authentic dramatic moments, backed up with his ­superb feel for soundtracks. Great family entertainment. ****

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