Friday, December 23, 2011

Animal Kingdom: The Sometimes Sappy “We Bought a Zoo” is Sort of a Miss

Who doesn’t like cute animals? You’ll get a lot of them in “We Bought a Zoo” a kind of sappy end of the year feel good family dramedy about a single dad who moves his family to a wildlife preserve. He wants to “start over.” His preteen son is having trouble in school (he draws violent images which the school is concerned about but they still hang it up in the hallway regardless). He also has a cute little girl. She’s really cute, almost too cute. Benjamin’s wife has previously passed away. It’s hard on him and his family as would be expected. I’m not sure if moving to a zoo is really the answer, but it is for him. He’s a writer and used to crazy things. He flew into a hurricane with a storm crew. The zoo comes fully staffed one of those people is Scarlett Johansson. You can kind of predict everything that will happen next. But at least it has cute animals.

“We Bought a Zoo” tells a real life story about Benjamin Mee (who’s book this film is based on) a single dad struggling to deal with the aftermath of losing his wife. He has two kids to take care of. His young daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), who’s probably no older than 6 is observant though: her dad is the only one with a full head of hair, so there’s still hope for him in the romance department. He also has a troubled son Dylan (Colin Ford). Lucky for him, Elle Fanning works at the zoo too. Benjamin picks up and sort of hesitantly moves his family to a struggling wildlife preserve which he plans on renovating. There are lions and tigers and a grizzly bear, oh my. It also staffs about 8 or so people, all of with varying degrees of personality and character development. It’s kind of a pathetic lot, one that I wouldn’t necessarily trust taking care of animals with sharp teeth and claws, but I digress. At least they mean well. The most important one though is Kelly Foster( Johansson). Kelly and Ben kind of have a thing going.

So the majority of the film deals with Benjamin’s attempt to renovate not only the zoo, but his family as well. And that’s about all we get really. Cameron Crowe likes making sort of sappy romances and this time it involves fuzzy animals. There’s even a little monkey that is trained to slap his own forehead. Cue audience laughter. If the film has any problem really, it exists somewhere in the script. Aline Brosh McKenna and Crowe, who co-wrote, can’t really find much for these characters to do except deal with opening the zoo. Benjamin mopes around, as does his son, who begins a mostly awkward teenage romance with Fanning’s character, who is sort of creepy in her own way. Every time I thought maybe things were being wrapped up, the movie kept going and going. And then there’s Christopher Guest staple John Michael Higgins playing a goofy inspector that the zoo staff despises. God forbid there be strong safety regulations at a wildlife park that houses animals that could kill human beings with one bite or pounce.

“We Bought a Zoo” will probably satisfy the late December “I want something sappy” crowd. It has all the perfect requirements of such a film. The movie isn’t really bad in any particular way. It’s just not all that interesting or innovative. The performances are decent. Maybe I just didn’t quite buy Matt Damon as a single father of two. I’m sure the family audience at which this film is directed at will be more than satisfied, but I found it to meander too much with not much interesting conflict. But at least it has cute animals. GRADE: C+

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