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Guest Review: “We Bought a Zoo”

Cameron Crowe Bakes a Family Treat With Familiar Twists

Above: Matt Damon stars in the new film by Cameron Crowe, "We Bought a Zoo."

"We Bought a Zoo" (opening December 23 throughout San Diego) arrives just in time for Christmas.

Cameron Crowe isn’t hiding behind anything. The fact that he named his newest movie, “We Bought a Zoo”, shows that he’s got a lot of faith in a story that sounds incredibly simple and predictable. But as Matt Damon recently reminded the audience in an interview with Jon Stewart, “Cameron Crowe directed it!”

“We Bought a Zoo” follows the Mee family -- a father, son, and daughter -- struggling to get over the recent loss of their mother. The father, Benjamin (played by Damon), is a former thrill-seeking, adventure journalist. He's searching for the best way to take care of his crumbling family while coping with the sudden end of his short-lived marriage. Left with a teenaged son filled with plenty of prepubescent angst and a vulnerable young daughter, Benjamin sets out to make a new start for his family by buying a zoo.

Here's the trailer.

It’s all very straightforward and clear, and filled with great intentions but it’s not the simplicity of the story that gets in the way of it being a good movie. Simple can be a good thing. And here it's accompanied by music from indie-all-star Jonsi, good acting, and heartfelt directing. I think the simplicity is one of the strong points of this movie. However, the movie suffers at times from subpar scripting, and a longer than needed runtime for a family oriented movie.

Clearly, the movie is for kids; it’s got cute animals, slapstick humor, Scarlett Johanson (kidding), a PG rating, but the movie runs over 2 hours, which is a bit long for most kids to handle, right? And apart from a few snarky script lines typical of Crowe, much of the script is isn’t that impressive. So most of the humor is aimed at kids with not much left on the table for adults.

Acting by both Scarlett Johanson and Thomas Haden Church is so-so, while Damon does a reasonably good job at playing the lead role. It’s really the daughter, played by Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who steals the show. She's one of those child actors who lights up the screen and is the kind director Cameron Crowe is good at finding.

I also found the music to be a real highlight of the film. Composed by the Icelandic crooner Jonsi, the soundtrack also included appearances by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and the up and coming Bon Iver. revealing Crowe’s background in rock and roll.

“We Bought a Zoo” (rated PG for language and some thematic elements) may not be the best that Cameron Crowe has to offer, but it does a great job at making a simple storyline work and presenting everyone with a solid family movie for the season.

Companion Viewing: “Jerry Maguire” (1996), “Almost Famous” (2000), and “Say Anything…” (1989)

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