We Bought a Zoo has, hands down, the most literal title of any movie this year. It tells the story of Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a man who takes his life savings and buys a zoo after his wife dies. Following this momentous event, however, director Cameron Crowe seems uncharacteristically uncertain about exactly what kind of movie he is making.
We Bought a Zoo is neither a full exploration of Benjamin’s grief nor a typical family film, despite the cute kids and animals. While many PG films use the death of a parent as a story catalyst, by focusing on Benjamin’s constant pain, this movie is infused with a malaise that will be hard for younger viewers to absorb. A straight-up family movie would require a lighter touch and an honest desire to entertain. Instead, We Bought a Zoo is a hybrid that sometimes entertains, sometimes instructs, and sometimes wallows.
As if to amplify this sense of indecision, We Bought A Zoo never asks us to criticize Benjamin’s uneven behaviors and unusual decision-making. After all, he is a single father who blows all his family’s savings on a wild animal park. This is an incredibly selfish and stupid act, and might serve as the basis of an interesting character study. But the film does everything possible to make the audience feel like Benjamin’s reckless behavior is in the best interests of his family.
This contradiction is introduced in the movie’s opening, when we learn Benjamin is a journalist who seeks out adventure and danger. He flies into the eye of a hurricane. He interviews a brutal dictator. He lets a swarm of killer bees cover him like a second skin. But even as this montage presents a man who takes chances without apparent regard for those around him (or those he leaves at home), it is immediately followed by another, where he is selflessly getting his kids to school and through life with only their well-being in mind.
This is emphasized when he buys the zoo because their current home is near people who throw loud parties. But the choice doesn’t seem well-considered either: he isn’t actually trying to buy a zoo, but it just so happens that he finds the perfect house and discovers that it is in the middle of a zoo, only after he and his button-cute seven-year-old daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) fall in love with it.
As a father being attentive to his daughter, Benjamin is somewhere between responsible and indulgent. But in Crowe’s world, responsible adults are boring. His more endearing characters are emotionally stunted, struggling adults such as the band members in Almost Famous, the 20somethings in Singles, and of course, Jerry Maguire. When Jerry Maguire loses his job after suffering a nervous breakdown and writing a manifesto, he becomes a man who is barely capable of caring for himself, let alone someone else. Thank goodness he meets Dorothy, who completes him.
Benjamin has a different trajectory because, he reminds us, his wife was perfect for him. Without her, he must look after Rosie and her surly 14-year-old brother Dylan (Colin Ford). Instead of needing to grow up, Benjamin focuses on already-adult problems, but these don’t quite seem serious. When he has to deal with a government inspector who could shut them down, the guy is a buffoon rather than a real threat. And when he has to pay the bills (which makes uninteresting viewing for all ages), even the possibility of bankruptcy is overcome by the most egregious deus ex machina of the year, when a new source of cash appears out of nowhere.
Benjamin’s most serious problems have to do with Dylan. They argue a few times, and finally Benjamin admits he’s angry at his son for being a living reminder of his mother. This is already a kid who is drawing brutal artwork depicting an apocalyptic world. If We Bought a Zoo had focused on Dylan’s story, the loss of his mother and observation of his father from the perspective of this talented but troubled kid, it might have been more like Crowe’s other movies about individuals growing up. As it is, no one in We Bought a Zoo quite takes that step.