Review: 'We Bought a Zoo', Brandon Bought a Zoo and So Should You
by Brandon Lee Tenney
December 24, 2011
"We bought a zoo!" It's a line exclaimed by precocious, cherry-haired Rosie throughout the film to anyone in earshot. Strangers. Animals. Herself. And every time, her voice is pure. It's the embodiment of optimism. It's joy. Complete, unadulterated joy. There's a reason—sure, among more obvious ones—We Bought a Zoo is titled as such. It's that line. But, really, it's the emotion that line evokes. That joy. Cameron Crowe is a filmmaker who is able to capture, personify, and epitomize emotion better than most other filmmakers. Emotion is his currency. And he doles it out with impunity.
So, for someone like myself whose life is lived—more often than not to a fault—through emotion rather than logic, Crowe hits a sweet spot that few others, if any, can touch. He gets me, and I him. I think he even wrote a line about completing something or other one time that still holds true…
What I'm hemming and hawing about here is that I'd always rather feel something deeply, feel something honestly that is flawed rather than admire something from a distance that, while beautiful and perfect, is abstinent. We Bought a Zoo is flawed. But it is so joyous, soulful, and lovely that I couldn't care less.
But now that I'm out of the theater, wiped away the tears, and downloaded Jonsi's score and deleted every other track on my iPhone, it's the film's flaws that are just sort of floating there in front of my face like dust caught in the sun. But let me try and look past the dust to the sun a bit first.
We Bought a Zoo is at its best when it's without dialog. When the camera lingers between beats in close-up on its characters, the titular zoo's animals, and the forces of nature itself, both visible and only felt, the film captures everything the often too-quippy, clumsy, over-stylized dialog stumbles around for its duration. The film, just maybe, could have played as powerfully, if not more so, as a silent film. Crowe's that good at pulling emotion from his actors. We Bought a Zoo is at its best when it indulges in its magical realism and flourishes. Crowe is the master of the, is reality/feels like reality, dichotomy. The elevation of emotion and feeling to tangibility is why films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Crowe's own Vanilla Sky hold so much power. They're emotional experiences made material. We Bought a Zoo does the same.
When Benjamin's memories turn from static stills to literalized, dynamic motion, we feel what he feels so much more strongly because of it. When Benjamin's story of his and his late wife's first meeting makes her literally manifest before his family, it's a feeling of reality that's so much more real than reality itself. The very idea of Benjamin purchasing that zoo stands as a critique of cynicism made literal. The optimistic father versus the cynical son. A generational divide where Crowe stands on one side and we, his audience, stand on the other. This is Crowe's extended hand. "We bought a zoo!" is the rallying cry behind him.
So, about that dust, those flaws. We Bought a Zoo is at its worst when using voiceover. That opening is elementary. And, ultimately, it's wholly forgettable and, therefore, wholly unnecessary. There's nothing in those snippets of Benjamin covered in bees or flying into the eye of a hurricane that couldn't have been incorporated into the scene when Benjamin confronts his editor. Not only does that provide context, but it raises the stakes of his ultimate resignation. The financial impact on the periodical, Benjamin's waning importance versus his once upon a time prominence, and his character's pride all within the same scene instead of repeated over the course of many. That repetition, too. The film is at its worst when it just can't seem to stop itself from playing the same story beats over and over again.
If only the film would have started with Benjamin picking up Dylan from school, already having been expelled then Benjamin looking at new homes with the realtor brilliantly played by J.B. Smoove. Those two scenes do what the first ten minutes trudge through more swiftly and with more driving interest—the realtor is such a natural exposition dynamic, nervously talking, asking questions, Rosie over-sharing, Dylan absent—along with getting us to the zoo quicker. With a film that is so soft on plot, rehashing what plot it does have is all that more inexcusable. That goes doubly for when the film is trying, because it just doesn't need to. It doesn't need to try to be funny or charming or emotional or poignant or clever. It does those things naturally, so why does it try so hard so often? The USDA inspector is so cartoonish, contrived, and over-stylized. His position alone is obstacle enough. Those other bits… they're just uncalled for.
I suppose I'm so frustrated with this film because its flaws are so small yet so visible and even more fixable. The way it made me feel is the way I feel when watching my favorite movies. The way I felt in the theater, though, just didn't carry over as I drove home. The film should have been—could have been—amazing with a few tweaks, less over-writing, less contrivance. And I'm saying this while still feeling my love for it.
Most of the film is so assured, trusting itself as it thrives in emotion born of its mostly fantastic characters that feel real even if there's no way they are, expressing emotion in ways that feel even more real. (It doesn't hurt that Crowe pulled some truly phenomenal performances from his actors, young and seasoned alike. Elle Fanning is especially exceptional. She's a beacon on screen. The film's brightest spot.) Yet, can it be that all of that just isn't good enough? You know what, I'm going to take a page out of the Mee playbook: I'm going to take Cameron Crowe's hand and cross party lines. I'm going to buy a zoo and damn the consequences. Hell, I've already bought the zoo. Feels good, man. Feels like joy.