‘It’s actually surprisingly charming and more emotionally understated than the material would suggest,’ writes AP critic Christy Lemire.
By Kara Warner
After a seven-year hiatus post-“Elizabethtown,” writer/director Cameron Crowe is back in action with his new film “We Bought a Zoo.” Based on a true story and the book of the same name, Matt Damon stars as Benjamin Mee, a widower who buys a failing zoo in an attempt to reconnect his family after the death of their mother.
The critical masses always seem eager to offer up opinions on any new Crowe feature, and this time around, the likes have edged out the dislikes, earning the film a “Fresh” rating over at Rotten Tomatoes. Without further ado, let’s wander through the “We Bought a Zoo” reviews!
The Story and Its Schmaltz Factor
“Sometimes, reacting to a movie is all about the expectations you bring with you walking into it. ‘We Bought a Zoo’ is about a family that buys a zoo. It’s as high-concept as you can get, outside of maybe ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes’ or ‘I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,’ and it’s equally straightforward in wearing its heart on its sleeve. We know to expect this ahead of time because ‘We Bought a Zoo’ comes from Cameron Crowe, the writer-director of ‘Say Anything …,’ ‘Jerry Maguire,’ ‘Almost Famous’ and, more recently, the 2005 flop ‘Elizabethtown.’ We know there will be some poignantly phrased life lessons in store for this family as they struggle to reconnect after the mother’s death. The whole exercise could have been agonizingly mawkish, and/or filled with cheap, lazy animal-poop jokes. And yet, it’s not. It’s actually surprisingly charming and more emotionally understated than the material would suggest. — Christy Lemire, The Associated Press
The Writing and Direction
“Crowe takes a lot of heat for his portrayal of adorable kids, and already there’s been a lot of online grousing about the Rosie character [Benjamin’s daughter] being a female variant on the aggressively lovable Jonathan Lipnicki in Crowe’s ‘Jerry Maguire.’ What Crowe doesn’t get enough credit for is his continuing insight into and empathy with teen characters, and one of the really engaging things about ‘Zoo’ is how conscious it is in showing the thread between characters who shared an adolescence together (Damon’s foil, a frequently sympathetic one, is an older brother played by Thomas Haden Church) and how that contributes to the hard-earned wisdom of characters trying to bridge generational misunderstanding. Which is to say that the scenes between Damon and Ford [Benjamin’s teenage son Dylan] are among the best-written (Crowe collaborated on the screenplay with Aline Brosh McKenna) and best-played scenes in the film.” — Glenn Kenny, MSN
“The ups and downs of survival while hanging on by their fingernails are too linear for spontaneity and the happy ending is nothing short of contrived, but the performances are sincere and Mr. Damon actually seems to be having a ball, giving one of the best and most mature performances of his career. The relationship between Ben, still hiding from the pain of loss, and Kelly [Scarlett Johansson], a 28-year-old animal lover with no personal life, wisely avoids the Hollywood clichés that too often furnish easy solutions for loneliness, while Dylan sees fate in a restorative way when he discovers romance with Kelly’s cousin (Elle Fanning, who, like her sister Dakota, is growing from child actor to leading lady with sex appeal faster than a flying bullet). The roles are mere outlines for meatier characters, but Mr. Damon brings a depth of humanity to the zealous but underwritten zoo owner that is guaranteed to inspire confidence.” — Rex Reed, The New York Observer
The Final Word, Pro-Con-Pro Style
“Don’t confuse the film’s modest goals with a lack of gravity. Damon’s father-son confrontation with Ford potently disproves that. As Benjamin says, ‘all it takes is 20 seconds of insane courage to change your life.’ There’s a lot of fun waiting at ‘We Bought a Zoo,’ but it’s the feelings that run through every scene that’ll make you glad you came.” — Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
“Does ‘We Bought a Zoo’ jerk tears and warm hearts effectively? Sure, dead moms and fuzzy critters will do that, especially when choreographed by a proud manipulator like Crowe. Perhaps it’s churlish to complain about a filmmaker who pours so much — his taste, his tunes, his worldview, his good humor — into each movie. But watching the overlong, overfeeling, overdirected ‘We Bought a Zoo’ made me glad to return from Cameron Crowe’s world to the real world, where things aren’t quite so simple.” — Dan Kois, Slate.com
“If you see it and you reject the sweetness or you can’t hang with the open-hearted nature of the thing, I’m not going to argue with you. But I’ve seen what naked manipulation looks like, and that’s not ‘We Bought a Zoo.’ It’s just a film that wears its emotions right out front, and somehow, Crowe is able to brush aside any thoughts of what people will or won’t think and just focus on building those moments that he does so well, those heartbreaking little moments of magic that have been the main currency of his career. Cameron Crowe remains, as always, uncool. And wonderful for it. ‘We Bought a Zoo’ is lovely, delicate, and absolutely worth seeing with your family this holiday season.” — Drew McWeeny, HitFix.com
Check out everything we’ve got on “We Bought a Zoo.”
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