There are many reasons for buying a zoo: scientific interest, the urge to protect endangered species, the sheer joy of introducing lions and tigers and bears to the public.
It’s even possible that a guy might purchase a dilapidated animal park, as Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) does in We Bought A Zoo, in the hope of taking his grief-stricken family’s mind off a recent tragedy.
But when harried zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) asks Benjamin Mee “Why have you bought a zoo?” he replies simply, “Why not?” “Why not?” symbolises Cameron Crowe’s comeback, an affable shrug of a movie.
After the torpid misfire of 2005’s Elizabethtown, Crowe was in danger of being crowned the auteur of anodyne, so it takes guts – or what the film calls “20 seconds of insane courage” – to return with something so sickly sweet and shamelessly sentimental.
He might as well wear a target on his back for critics to kick. except Crowe doesn’t care, and somewhere along the way, cynicism melts inside the film’s great big bear-hug. Where his idol Billy Wilder might have made more of the psychological despair underlying Mee’s quixotic crusade, Crowe has too much generosity of spirit to let this be anything other than, as mee puts it, “a good dream – and it’s got cool animals in it and some pretty great people, too!
As is so often the case with ludicrously high-concept premises, this actually happened – albeit the real Mee was English and the zoo based in Devon. Crowe relocates to California, inviting Disneyfication via group hugs, Mee’s precociously cute daughter and a capuchin monkey in a zookeeper’s uniform. But the director never lets it descend into Zookeeper territory, the mood mellow rather than manic.
The chilled-out pacing puts the onus on the look and feel, no bad thing with Rodrigo Prieto’s sun-dappled cinematography accompanied by the beatific shimmer of a score from Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi.
And the stars radiate warmth. Even in neurosis, Mee is as unflappable and perky as only Damon can be, while Johansson has rarely been so relaxed, dropping the sarcastic smoulder to muck in with the rest of the likeable cast (Thomas Haden Church, Elle Fanning, Almost Famous’ Patrick Fugit).
It’s apt, albeit disappointing, that the DVD’s only extra is a slight making of focusing on the cast’s childlike glee in watching their creature co-stars. (Unavailable for review, the Blu-ray packs in a commentary, featurettes and copious deleted scenes.) Never work with children or animals, goes the adage – but on this evidence, it’s Cameron Crowe’s dream job.