It must be strange to see yourself portrayed on screen by Matt Damon in an Americanised and altered version of your own life story, but that is what has happened to Benjamin Mee, a British guy who bought a zoo in Dartmoor on a whim, and is still running it. This film takes that story and comes up smelling of scent-drenched roses.
First the original. Mee bought the zoo with his wife and brother and 2 kids, and an ageing mother. Subsequently, his wife died of cancer.The zoo is still there.
Now the movie. Cameron Crowe, whose recent films have been terrible, relocates the setting to the USA (no surprise) and has the wife die before the film starts. This allows us to see the way that the women at school come on to the grieving widower in the way the real Mee describes. His brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church) is a quip-happy accountant forever trying to persuade his kid brother not to waste his money; the mother has gone, and the kids have been surgically altered to incorporate a stroppy teenage son (for father/son issues), and a very cute 7 year old (who really is very cute). And then there's Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) who just happens to come with the zoo, and is clearly smitten with her new boss from Day 1. Throw in an improbably annoying zoo inspector, and some mildly alarming incidents, and you have an all-American film that I couldn't help liking despite my better judgement.
There was a time when Crowe made nifty films like Say Anything and Jerry Maguire, but he hit a losing streak that culminated in the appalling Elizabethtown. And while this new film is hardly a masterpiece, it is at least fun in an undemanding way. Crowe has a propensity to drown everything in fairly sappy rock music, with the occasional exception (Neil Young's Cinnamon Girl), and he obviously feels no shame at tugging every heartstring that happens to be carelessly dangling. A lot of the characters barely register above the 2 dimensional, and when in doubt, he resorts to showing animals being animals. And yet...
And yet, there is no more likable and everyday an actor than Matt Damon. It's impossible not to find him endearing just as T H Church is funny and witty. The nicest surprise is to see Johansson in a role that makes her look like an interesting and attractive but ordinary woman, without having to wear skin tight superhero costumes or pout too much. Elle Fanning also manages miracles with a role that has had very little effort put into it.
I think this is a film that most kids over the 10, and easily-pleased adults will enjoy (and I must count myself as one of them). It goes on too long, but it slips down very easily.
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