Friday, January 13, 2012

Animal Kingdom

Well, here we are, still waiting for the big releases of 2012 to rear their ugly heads. I'm now two and a half weeks into the new year, and I'm still catching up on 2011's major releases. That's okay, though, as Hollywood assumes you're doing the exact same thing. This coming weekend is far more likely to be dominated by the 3D re-release of Disney animated classic (and one of my top 5 all-time) Beauty and the Beast than it is by the latest Mark Wahlberg crime drama. The industry knows that you're likely more interested in catching up on the December glut of award-nominated titles than anything else they will show you this month. It's sad but true: if Hollywood thought you cared about Contraband, they wouldn't release it in early January. Business on new movies is likely to pick up next week, as a trio of new releases look to actually compete for box office bank, and that might end the hope for titles like Iron Lady or War Horse to receive that one last push to box office success. Still, when there are plenty of quality films like We Bought a Zoo still open for business, that new stuff can wait just a little longer.

Matt Damon shouldn't be allowed to self-promote
Directed by Cameron Crowe, We Bought a Zoo stars Matt Damon as real-life writer Benjamin Mee. Mee, whose career as a respected journalist has come to an end at the hands of the failing newspaper industry, is also grieving over the loss of his wife and the mother of his two children just six months prior. Desperate for a change, Benjamin's plans to relocate his family intersect the needs of a zoo down on its luck. The closed animal sanctuary is looking for a buyer to take care of the land and animals before drastic measures must be taken, and Benjamin is enraptured with the idea of a new adventure for him and his kids. This does create some new problems, most notably a strain on both his bank account and his relationship with his teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford), who is angered at having been forced to move away from all his friends. With the help of his older brother Duncan (Thomas Hayden Church) and a dedicated zoo crew led by lead zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), Benjamin is focused and determined to re-open this zoo to the public and heal the wounds caused by his wife's tragic passing.

Frankly, I'm just waiting for her to kick ass Avengers-style
We Bought a Zoo returns director Cameron Crowe to mainstream relevance after a period of relative downtime since 2005's water-treader Elizabethtown. Crowe was a big deal in the late '90's and early 2000's, with hits Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky beefing up an impressive resume. Since then he has laid low, making music documentaries and a Pearl Jam music video, but seeing this film reminds you why you were impressed with his work so long ago. Don't get me wrong: We Bought a Zoo is no Almost Famous, but there are enough similarities in the tone and raw film talent that you can forgive it while marveling at what elements have remained after so long a time. For one, Crowe remains a master at manipulating emotions, subtly predicting just how you the audience will react to a certain scene, cleverly ramping up the juice to build on the momentum or wisely cutting back to let your poor tear ducts recover. I specifically remember thinking that I was doing so well for so many of the film's more emotionally-driven scenes, only to nearly break down during the film's final act and cursing Crowe's name for making me cry in front of a friend who had agreed to see the thing with me.

"Hey, remember me? Award-winning actor in Sideways? I'm still relevant!"
Of course, the acting is Crowe's best way to engage viewers to what is happening in the film, and while there are no Kate Hudson's here (okay, I promise that was my last Almost Famous reference), the film is packed with enough genuine talent that even minor missteps are forgivable. Matt Damon is thankfully refreshing after a down 2010, and he combines honesty, kindness and just enough subtle flaws for a pitch-perfect performance as the lead. Benjamin Mee might not be a perfect person, but he's close enough and obviously tries his hardest to do the best he can be. While not as perfectly cast as Damon, Scarlett Johansson does more than enough to remind people why she was once one of the most sought after actresses in Hollywood. Sure, boiled down this is a typical romantic interest part, but Kelly's overall competence means that she'll never be mistaken for a dumb blond in this century. The wide net of talent manages to produce some very unconventional performances from the main duo's co-stars. Colin Ford and Maggie Elizabeth Jones especially stand out as Benjamin's children. Ford has more to do as older son Dylan, a shy and troubled teen with a fascination with death that manifests in his artwork. Ford's main job through the movie is to clash with the other personalities, especially in an adversarial tone with Damon. While perhaps flirting with the melodramatic, he does a good overall job with the material given. Jones, at seven years of age, doesn't need to be overly talented to work as an actress in a role that doesn't require much more than general cuteness.. However, she has a natural charisma that makes her a centerpiece of many scenes, and her line delivery and sense of comic timing is perfect. Thomas Hayden Church also makes a nice appearance as Benjamin's pragmatic older brother, and the relationship between Church and Damon is natural and fluid. Angus MacFayden makes a perfect eccentric, a zoo carpenter with an axe to grind and both mean and kind streaks that allow him to steal many scenes. And Elle Fanning is understated as a home-schooled assistant. Fanning, who in the past year has proven herself to be on par talent-wise with her sister Dakota Fanning, is a blend of awkward and shyness that fits perfectly with the character's history, and while her character feels more a means to an end than a real contribution to the story, it's good to see her still getting challenging parts like this on a regular basis.

Yup, you'll be smiling too
Of course, even such a well-cast, well-directed story can have its flaws. For one, there sure is a lot of swearing for a PG rated film, not something I expected going in. I know, swearing is a very real factor in everyday life, but the sheer volume used in We Bought a Zoo is curious for a family film, most notably in the usage by and around the children in the story. Sometimes it's used to comedic effect. Sometimes it's emotionally effective. Most of the time though it just feels unnecessary, and doesn't inspire me to recommend it for your kids. The tale is also extremely schmaltzy at times, to the point of being dangerously over-saccharine. I can't help but feel that this is intentional, but Crowe only barely crosses the line of believability on a few occasions (one of which had the entire audience gasping a breath through an obviously fictional faux pas).

It's a symbol of man's inhumanity against man! Get it?
And that's We Bought a Zoo's main problem; that it's a finely tuned set piece that leaves no loose threads and is almost unbelievable in its execution. For those errors, however, it is still a very engaging piece, and slowly learning how and why these people (especially Benjamin Mee) came to their current ideas and circumstances is a fun and thoroughly entertaining afternoon's delight. While far from perfect, this film makes for a nice return for Cameron Crowe to the big time, and is a solid, heart-warming film that you can enjoy with your family, albeit those you don't mind hearing select four-letter words. If you're burned out on dark, emotionally scarring works like The Devil Inside or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, this is a title that will set your heart aflutter and remind you why you used to love movies as a kid.

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