If there's a voice quietly telling you that you and/or your family's umpteenth viewing of It's a Wonderful Life DVD will be met with quiet resolve instead of enthusiasm, then your holiday will be saved by going to see We Bought a Zoo. Although not directly comparable to the Christmas classic, the warmth and family-friendliness is all there. Director Cameron Crowe's long-awaited return to narrative filmmaking is just like your best friend's dopey-but-sweet younger brother: you're very aware of its imperfections, but ultimately find it easy to like.
You have to check your cynic's hat at the door in order to get on board with this movie. Crowe's earlier (fantastic) films like Singles or Almost Famous have characters that let us celebrate skepticism, at least for awhile until everyone learns a little something about themselves and the world around them in that magical Cameron Crowe way. This latest one, though, focuses on Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a widower with two children who needs a new start. Although the story has negative voices in it (like Benjamin's disapproving brother Duncan played by Thomas Hayden Church, or the evil USDA inspector Water Ferris played by John Michael Higgins), the movie lets them say their peace and then cuts to a shot of a cute animal. You too will be silenced in this way if you choose to forget that Frank Capra is a legend for writing stories like these.
If you haven't chosen the dark side, you will be aligned with the staff of the zoo, who spend the entire movie just quietly staring at Benjamin as he slowly realizes that he was ill-equipped to--you guessed it--buy a zoo. It's entertaining to watch them watch stuff. Elle Fanning is a weird little hippie chick who hands out sandwiches and puts poignant messages on the community marquee and Angus Macfayden plays the drunken teddy bear that goes grizzly when his archenemy Ferris comes around. Crystal the highest-grossing Capuchin monkey of 2011, who has had a huge year in both Zookeeper andThe Hangover II, even gets her own mute human escort in the form of Patrick Fugit. And plus, Scarlett Johansson actually plays a real human being in this movie, with unattractive flaws and an endless supply of unrevealing flannel shirts.
The normal Crowe Rhythm shows up again, which goes something like Characters Fight--Awesome Song You Love--Comic Relief--Awesome Song You Hated When It Was New-- Important Declaration--Awesome Song You Forgot About--Characters Make It Happen--Awesome Song That's a B-side--Resolution of Story to an Awesome Song That Must Have Cost a Fortune To Use. If you want to boil this movie down, it's really just lots of people relating to each other in difficult situations and gorgeous insert shots of exotic animals. It's hard to pin down why this movie has a little less wow factor than normal for him, but I assume it's because the world is too cynical to surrender to a movie that has such a good heart. Case in point: I found myself cheering when Benjamin and his teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford) were finally yelling at each other. The distance between them had grown due to mom's death and the move, and the fact that teenagers are evolutionarily required to be punks. However, it has one of the most believable, effective parts of the movie because it was the kind of yelling that real people do when they truly love each other. Perhaps Cameron Crowe has made it his life's mission to chip away at the icy prison that our hearts have become trapped in, which I am all for, especially when it includes adorable child performers like Maggie Elizabeth Jones and Altered States jokes.