Freeze Frame #154: We bought a zoo

I tried to like this movie, I really did. But when a talented writer-director like Cameron Crowe sets his sights on mediocrity, he is good enough to be able to achieve it. Despite having a quirky plot (widower Benjamin Mee uproots his kids, moves to the countryside, buys a derelict zoo, gets it up and running and heals himself in the process), a great cast (Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church) and visuals that involve close-ups of grizzlies, African lions and Royal Bengal Tigers, the film feels like a moderately amped-up Disney feature. Tragic, really.

Not that there is nothing to like. There are a few quiet scenes, especially between Mee and his zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett), that work quite well. Mee’s struggles in dealing with an ailing tiger are reasonably well done, but one moment where he looks at it and asks, “Is it time?” is heartbreaking.

There is however one scene where Crowe absolutely brings his A game. It comes right at the end, when Mee takes his children to the restaurant where he first met their mother. In an early scene, he refuses to go to that restaurant because of that very reason, so you know right then that he would eventually return here. The little exchange that concludes the scene (and the film) is cute if not exceptional, but has the added bonus of explaining an earlier conversation between him and Kelly and ensures that we walk out with a little smile and a chuckle.

But really, it is the manner in which this scene is played that makes it worthwhile.  As Mee relives that scene before them, you see an energy that the rest of the film lacks. While this is somewhat credible given that the plot involves him getting over her loss, it is in this scene that you feel like you’re watching something made by the man responsible for You had me at hello.

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3 thoughts on “Freeze Frame #154: We bought a zoo

  1. S says:

    Caught this on DVD the year it came out. I agree with you, the movie itself was less than memorable. (Despite Matt Damon. Unbelievable!) But it’s those quiet scenes, as you say. Those echoes. They’re what you remember it by. And that Cameron Crowe writerly thing. His love of words… how it seeps thru. I remember Mee’s conversation with his teenager during the car ride to school. “Whatever,” says Dylan, like all fifteen year olds do. And Mee retorts with “It’s the twentieth century’s worst word ” and challenges his son to come up with a better word. “Pernicious.” That, Mee approves of. And his youngest wants to now what it means… Crowe builds this whole moment in the car around one word.

    I too liked that restaurant scene replay towards the end. Its heart warming “why?” and “why not?” exchange that we see echoed early on, in this other scene, is evocative of so much more… And the fixation on word usage yet again, this time it’s “Cage.”

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