Based on the true story of a single dad who moves his family into a zoo, Benjamin Mee an animal behaviour specialist is a single father needing a fresh start. Using his life savings, he buys a dilapidated zoo in the country side replete with 200 exotic animals including Siberian tigers, African lions, wolves and brown bears, and moves his family in. With the help of an eccentric staff, the Mees attempt to return the zoo to its former glory.
Director Cameron Crowe has a number of interesting films in his filmography as both writer and director including ‘Jerry Maquire’, ‘Almost Famous’, ‘Vanilla Sky’ and more recently he directed the documentary film chronicling two decades of Pearl Jam in ‘Pearl Jam: Twenty’. With the new film ‘We Bought a Zoo’ we see Crowe’s involvement once again as both director and writer as he worked on the screenplay along with Aline Brosh McKenna.
‘We Bought a Zoo’ is a drama comedy film based on a memoir written by Benjamin Mee about how he and his family used their life savings to buy Dartmoor Zoological Park which was at the time facing permanent closure. The events of the film take place in the context of Mee’s recent and unexpected loss of his wife after which his family are still struggling to re-establish their relationships with each other while rediscovering their place in the world.
This is a well made film with an excellent cast and is driven almost entirely by the various characters within the story. The script allows most of the cast opportunities to work with some substance in delivering their performances which for the duration of the film are consistently strong across the entire cast. Unfortunately however despite such a strong cast the balance of material across all the characters is quite mixed, with some characters working through developed story arcs and others left neglected on the side lines.
There are a number of opportunities for drama with this film and it takes almost every opportunity to explore them, with the relationships between the family members and the zoo employees being the heart of the film. The emotional drama which is explored here is offset skillfully with some lighter comedic moments as well as a very short list of characters whose main focus is to deliver some comedic relief throughout the film. With the zoo itself almost serving as a character of its own, the photography of the various animals provides a small sense of wonder, interest and amusement.
Where this film struggles to find its place however is in terms of what audience it is seeking to connect with. ‘We Bought a Zoo’ largely presents itself as a holiday family film, however what it delivers is a dramatically emotional film which thematically is filled with mature adult content, blended with some light humour but none of which is likely to entertain a younger audience who may find the film pitched above their level of interest.
While the writing is strong for the most part, some of the material for the younger characters in the film, primarily Benjamin’s daughter as played by actress Maggie Elizabeth Jones, while no doubt a crowd pleaser and makes for a very cute performance, feels over-engineered and too well written for the character.
Another area where things do tend to disappoint with ‘We Bought a Zoo’ is in terms of its structure and pacing. At various times throughout the film but primarily within the final act the plot becomes quite clumsy and too slowly paced without quite knowing at what point to wrap things up. Not content with the material delivered up until the end which has a satisfactory resolution a final sub-plot and conflict is rushed through in the closing minutes of the film which serves little purpose other than to distract from the previous elements that have concluded.
‘We Bought a Zoo’ is a solid drama with a touch of comedy that explores some adult themes with strong performances from the quality cast, held back mostly by a story that is a little too messy and slightly overstays its welcome before the end credits roll.
I’m giving it 3 out of 5 stars, it’s released in cinemas around Australian on Monday 26 December 2011.