Today my mom dragged me to We Bought a Zoo.
I hadn’t heard of this film until a couple weeks ago, and then only heard the title. The posters are innocuous and the trailer is sort of misleading, and let’s not mince words, this film is more than partially geared toward kids… and families. More than a few elderly couples were in the theater when we were there. That was fun, listening to the wives re state the lines of the film to the deaf husbands at different intervals. That wasn’t a problem when I saw The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo last week. Old people don’t like anal rape, guys.
I found that despite the intentional schmaltziness of the film, I was genuinely moved to tears at points. The performances, especially from Damon, Johansson, Fanning, Ford, and Jones, were so genuine, and rich, that I found myself invested in their plight. I’ve never had a death in my family, but I definitely know what it’s like for someone who I care deeply for to suddenly and irrevocably disappear from my life, which I assume is why it resonated so deeply with me.
Also, I like animals. There are lots of cool animal moments.
Where the film succeeds, is also where it fails. In order to make sure you don’t forget that it’s a family film, our pack of brilliant genuine actors are positioned against a troupe of cartoonishly one dimensional characters. Patrick Fugit seems like he’s there as a favor, Thomas Haden Church is doing a bad impression of a genuine character (we know he can act, seems like he’s been instructed not to act, here), John Michael Higgins is awkwardly out of place, as are Carla Gallo, Angus Macfadyen, J.B. Smoove, and Michael Panes. It feels cheap.
Did we need these awkwardly heightened characters to offset the reality and gravitas of the rest of the film?
I would argue no, but admittedly, were those offsets not there, it likely would have fallen out of the comfortable realm of family friendly, and more into the hot-seat of non-fiction drama. It also would have been more cohesive and moving, but I guess we can’t have everything, right?
I’ll be the first to admit, I’m a sucker for icelandic experimental music. I’m a big fan of Sigur Ros, Mum, Amina, and Jonsi’s solo efforts in general, but if I were charged with scoring a family friendly film about buying a Zoo, Jonsi would not be my first choice. His score seemed out of place, immediately, continuously, and distractingly. In the film’s most sincere and genuine moments, I felt annoyed and pulled at by the sickening, saccarine, bubbly music.
Against the Grain
The emergent trend I’m beginning to notice in films (something I’ve started to call Second Wave American Realism, tell your friends, they’re totally care), is effortless integration of the gamut of human emotions, while remaining committed to the reality of the film. We see this in films like, most recently, the Descendants, and… pretty much any of Alexander Payne’s films. They’re comedic, but we never for a minute are not moved by the actions and idiosyncrasies of their characters. We see it in the work of Diablo Cody. We saw it most successfully in Bridesmaids. We can even see it in the Hurt Locker and other films… I could go on listing. I’m not making a strong argument, and other sources would argue about what the new American Realism is shaping up to be, the point is, We Bought a Zoo is not it. What it does feel like, despite its many successes, is a jilted and sputtering attempt to do a family friendly movie by a writer/director who is desperately groping for a unique style. I don’t hate Cameron Crowe. He’s a brilliant dude. But he’s wildly inconsistent.