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Mild Animals

by John Rodat on January 12, 2012

We Bought a Zoo
Directed by Cameron Crowe

Johansson and young friend in We Bought a Zoo.

 

Cameron Crowe’s family dramedy We Bought a Zoo is entirely inoffensive, and may be as good a way for you to spend 124 minutes as another. But it really depends.

The movie tells the story of Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), an adventurous reporter who must reinvent himself after the death of his wife. Benjamin is a decent man and embraces wholeheartedly his new solo responsibility for raising his two children. But the transition is awkward. Awkward. Not dire. Awkward.

Benjamin’s teen son is moody and dark. Maybe even a little more than a teenager with living parents would be. Benjamin, himself, is too sad to visit the coffee shop where he met his late wife. He is so distraught that he cannot even respond to the flirtation of the sympathetic (single?) mothers of his children’s classmates.

OK, so, now I’m being snide. But the stakes in We Bought a Zoo just aren’t very high. If I’m making the plot sound incredibly mild, it’s because it is. The family’s purchase of a zoo, the big turning point of the movie and of the Mees’ lives, even, happens in such a leisurely, gently humorous way that it barely raises the tension. It’s less dramatically paced then reality-TV real-estate shows.

Apparently, Ben Stiller was considered for the role of Benjamin. That casting would certainly have raised the angst factor; and just thinking about it makes me appreciate Damon’s consistent affability in the part. Everyone in the movie, even Scarlett Johansson, whom I usually loathe, is fine and likable. (Though Thomas Haden Church, who plays Benjamin’s brother, creeps me out just a little.) In real life, you’d hope that things work out for such pleasant people, but in We Bought a Zoo you don’t really need to. It never really seems in question.

So, what does the movie offer? Attractive human beings overcoming surmountable odds to attain unusually fulfilling lives. And animals.

The animals were the clincher for my 9-year-old companion, who was free to focus on them, in part, I think, because the humans demanded so little attention. (As compared to the annoyingly distracting actors in The Big Year, for example, who were much less pleasing than their bird costars.)

So, why do you go to movies? If it’s ever to please a 9-year-old animal lover, I can report that We Bought a Zoo is effective. And if it’s to see things work out for good-looking people, you may not even need the kid.