They Wanna Be Free

The first two thirds of Cameron Crowe‘s We Bought A Zoo (20th Century Fox, 12.23), which had a nationwide sneak last night, tries too hard to be endearing, or so it seemed to me. For 80 minutes or so it’s a not too bad family-type movie that works here and there. In and out, at times okay and other times oddly artificial. And then it kicks into gear during the last third and delivers some genuinely affecting sink-in moments and a truly excellent finale.

Matt Damon, imprisoned Bengal tiger in We Bought A Zoo.

The smarty-pants Twitter community was generally thumbs-up about Zoo following the sneak so I guess my mixed sourpuss feelings represent a minority view.

Matt Damon is better-than-decent in the lead role of Benjamin Mee, a nice guy who for complex emotional reasons decides to buy a zoo in the Thousand Oaks area. Scarlett Johansson is believably forceful as the head zoo keeper (or whatever the correct title is), and Thomas Haden Church is under-utilized as Damon’s advice-giving older brother. The stand-out performance comes from 14 year-old Colin Ford, I feel. There’s also a surprisingly inconsequential, poorly written one given by Elle Fanning, who by the way wears too much eye makeup.

The first two thirds are better at delivering family-friendly studio schmaltz than War Horse, but that’s not saying much. It suffers from on-the-nose dialogue and a bad case of the cutes, which is what happens when Crowe’s magical realism vibe doesn’t quite lift off the ground because the exact right notes haven’t been found or hit. The movie never really transforms into a suspension-of-disbelief thing. You’re constantly aware that you’re sitting in a theatre seat watching actors speak that tangy, semi-natural-sounding, spiritually upbeat Crowe dialogue and listening to the usual nifty Crowe-selected rock tunes (“Cinnamon Girl”, “Bucket of Rain”, etc.).

But the last third kicks in with better-than-decent emotional conflict and payoff scenes, and the heart element finally settles in from time to time, and there’s a great diatribe against the use of the word “whatever” and an exceptional father-son argument scene and nice use of refrain (“Why not?”). Endings are half the game, and by that rule or standard We Bought A Zoo saves itself. It won’t kill you to see it, and you might like the first two-thirds more than I did. Whatever.

Johansson gets to do a lot of arguing and shouting in this thing, and at some point I began saying to myself, “Jesus, I wouldn’t ever want to be in an argument with her…she’s really angry and adamant and unyielding.” And I began to think that I might be sensing, maybe, how her marriage to Ryan Reynolds came apart.

Damon, Johansson, Cameron Crowe during filming of We Bought A Zoo

The film is based on Benjamin Mee‘s true-life, this is what really happened book of the same title, but it’s been personalized by Crowe to some extent and is basically about recovering from loss, grief, trauma. Crowe’s marriage fell apart in 2008 and his career hit a land mine in 2005 with Elizabethtown and then stalled again with mysterious shutdown of Deep Tiki in late ’08/early ’09 so Zoo is actually his story on one level or another, I suspect.

But my basic feeling about We Bought A Zoo is similar to a line that former Secretary of State James Baker once said about a senior Iraqi official during the 1991 Gulf War: “A good diplomat with a bad brief.”

We Bought A Zoo is harmlessly decent family pap, but it rests upon a fundamentally rancid notion that zoos are cool. Zoos are emphatically not cool. I’ve been to zoos three or four times in my life and I like checking out the giraffes and lions and orangutans as much as the next guy, but they’re built on the conceit that animals living sullen and diminished lives inside cages are entertaining, and that looking at these creatures from the safe side of a cage and chuckling at their behavior and smelling their scent somehow enhances our lives by connecting us (or our kids) to nature. Which is, of course, horseshit.

Outside of the makers of this film and zoo owners and clueless lower-middle-class Walmart types, I don’t think there are any intelligent and compassionate people on the planet who believe zoos are a good idea. At best they’re an unfortunate idea. A message during the end credits informs that Mee’s zoo in England (i.e., Dartmoor Zoological Park) is a highly respected one, but it’s still a zoo.

Last month’s exotic animal slaughter in Ohio reminded a lot of us that it’s fundamentally wrong to keep exotic animals in cages to satisfy some bizarre emotional longing to bond with them, which, outside of respectably maintained zoos, is some kind of low-rent, Middle-American scumbag thing. Remember how Tony Montana kept a Bengal tiger chained up on the grounds of his mansion?

Zoos are prisons, and it’s dead wrong to sentence animals to life terms in them, however spacious and well-maintained their cages or how loving and caring and compassionate their keepers may be. Zoo animals don’t live in “enclosures,” as zoo-keepers prefer to call them these days. They live in effing jail cells just like Jimmy Cagney and George Raft did in Each Dawn I Die, or Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock.

Crowe is renowned for using great rock-music tracks in his film, but I doubt if he ever considered using Presley’s “I Want To Be Free” for We Bought A Zoo. I thought of it last night when I was driving home from the screening, I can tell you.

“There’s no joy in my heart, only sorrow

And I’m sad as an animal can be

I sit alone in my fake-love enclosure

And this enclosure is a prison to me

“I look out my window

And what do I see?

I see a bird

Up in a tree


“I want to free! (oh, yeah)

Free! (oh, yeah)

Free-hee-hee…I want to be free

Like a bird in a tree (wanna be free)”

  • boldnative

    Thanks Jeff for so articulately pointing this out. Zoos are a place we cage living beings. There’s nothing cool about them. You hit the nail on the head.

  • ModernLifeIsRubbish

    I thought the ending is where it went too far. The Sigur Ros dude’s score shimmered and swelled for fifteen straight minutes as Crowe trotted out four or five endings. Almost as if he shot a couple different Big, Emotional Finales to decide later which had the biggest and best impact on audiences. But along the way decided to just line them up and let ’em all play out. The last one–the diner scene–felt extraneous and even a bit creepy. Should have been cut.

    I enjoyed the film overall. Definitely more of a holiday-season family crowd pleaser than an Oscar candidate, which is fine. It plays well on its own terms. And Damon is terrific here. A dedicated, warm, lived-in movie-star performance with moments of painful honesty. The huge shouting match between him and his son…wow. I almost feel bad for him because he hits a lot of the same tough and poignant notes as Smith in The Pursuit of Happyness and Clooney in The Descendants, but he’ll get less respect for the accomplishment because it’s in a movie with a zebra on the poster and a PG rating.

    I hope this does well at the Christmas box office despite loads of competition for the family crowd, from Tintin to Chipmunks. Crowe clearly made it from a place of, “All right, my career’s gone a bit sideways. Here’s a careful, well-assembled, well-shot piece of populist entertainment. Feel good! The holidays!” So it would be a bit odd and sad if it ended up flopping.

    Oh, and LexG is going to adore Elle Fanning in this. Crowe relies on her a lot. Lots of reaction shots. Such a warm and, yes, fetching presence.

  • joe banks

    i wanted to throw the mugging kid to the fucking lion. everything about this movie just screamed “love me, PLEEEASE!”

  • Lonesome Rhodes

    You’re dead right about the third act working. For most of the first half I was ready to hate this thing–mostly because of Crowe’s cynical use of the little girl, shooting her like she’s Jesus Christ, and generally trying to recreate Jonathan Lipnicki in Jerry Maguire.

    But it wins you over. It SOUNDS like high concept hell, but it never turns into a sitcom. There’s no schtick, no wacky escapades, just warm-hearted people exchanging that Crowe-speak. It’s good. And it doesn’t feel like a hired hand thing–Crowe’s fingerprints are all over this. Its of a piece with his earlier films, for better or worse.

  • joe banks

    also, when the biggest plot twist to your dramatic conclusion is (SPOILER!!!!)

    it’s raining nonstop in Los Angeles in the middle of July and forecast to stay that way for the whole season, i’m not going to buy in

  • ModernLifeIsRubbish

    I love the fact all the jaded Oscar watchers–with their Descendants swag and Coriolanus after parties and the rest of it–had to pay to see this super-sentimental family comedy with paying audiences. I half suspect it’s getting a warmer online reaction today because of this…

  • Tristan Eldritch2

    Nothing brings the plight of animals in captivity home with rawer emotional force than comparison to a character in an Elvis Presley movie.

  • Krillian

    For some reason, I’m picturing Richard E. Grant from Act 1 of The Player watching this movie and screaming, “That is not REAL! That does not HAPPEN! Schmaltz!”

  • DiscoNap

    boldnative/Wells: If you can’t tell the difference between a drug dealer/gun runner chaining up animals to look badass and a well-kept zoo, then give up, because you have no sense of proportion and completely suck at advocacy. A lot of the animals at the zoo would otherwise be under a Chilean bulldozer right now, etc. Do you have any idea how many zoo animals are endangered? This is like wishing people on Section 8 housing could be hustling on the street. You’re insane.

  • berg

    Cleveland Amory’s Black Beauty Animal Sanctuary

  • JR

    Zoo is lesser, 2nd tier Crowe, but it is a sweet enough movie that will appeal to lots of folks. The little 7 year old girl steals every scene.

    I am a bit surprised by the mostly favorable comments here, on HE, for this schmaltz fest. And Jeff’s comment that it is not as schmaltzy as War Horse (or is better at delivering it) is a joke. This movie is so nauseatingly saccharine sweet it will induce diabetes.

    I agree with Jeff that Fanning’s role was a waste and poorly written.

    And I don’t think anybody expected this to be an Oscar film, and it clearly isn’t one.

    I wouldn’t recommend this film to anyone.

  • Rashad

    Zoos are often the last resort for a lot of animals, from those suffering from disease, to ones whose habitats have been destroyed, and even those animals that have been abandoned by their mothers. I have no qualms with anyone who says fuck zoos, but don’t come crying when there are animals going extinct. If we’re paying for preservation, I want those animals on display for our enjoyment

  • MikeSchaeferSF

    Johanssen’s marriage to Ryan Reynolds came apart because he’s, um… gay, gay, gay.

    But based on Jeff’s review, I’ll probably enjoy this more than he did.

  • BobbyLupo

    “I don’t think there are any intelligent and compassionate people on the planet who believe zoos are a good idea.”

    And, as if to confirm this, here comes Rashad to be pro-zoo.

  • VicLaz2

    Zoos are ground zero for animal research. They also bring in a bit of revenue to FUND research and conservation efforts, and they inspire our future conservationists and animal activists. They’re not supposed to be circus animals (which should be banned).

    Get rid of your pet birds and fish aquariums if you believe zoos are evil.

  • Chris Willman

    Speaking of animals… Was anybody else a little surprised that even Scorsese goes for dog reaction shots for comedy now? Not that I’m really complaining. Animals are comics.

    Also, I don’t for a second think Jeff really believes it when he says there are no non-WalMart-shopping progressives on the planet except Cameron and Matt Damon who believe in zoos or preserves. To think that, you’d pretty much have to be a Ron Paul type–survival of the fittest, and if you can’t survive on your own terms, go ahead and die.

  • Edward

    It’s unfortunate that some zoos exist to save animals from extinction. The world would be so much better off if they weren’t needed.

  • boldnative

    DiscoNap – I can tell the difference. I just don’t think it’s substantive in terms of judging whether it’s right to cage living beings for human pleasure. And you might want to look into ways to express your opinion with insults… you would have more credibility.

  • LexG

    This thread seemed to fade faster than expected, considering apparently every single member of this or any film blog “community” went to see it last night (I did not)…

    Why is Matt Damon playing all these dad roles? And it’s not like he’s playing fathers of newborns or toddlers… Where’s big-screen Damon getting all these 14, 16-year-old kids? Dude’s like 39 or 40… What upscale white-collar professional man who looks like MATT DAMON was knocking out kids at age 24?

    Also this takes place in Thousand Oaks? I know that’s relatively lily-white as the Valley goes, but still, lemme guess, there’s no Latinos, Armenians or Filipinos anywhere in sight.

    And a question for the dads: I guess Matt gets ScarJo in this, so that’s a pretty good deal, but AS A FATHER– SERIOUSLY, FELLAS, BE TRUTHFUL– how can you stand seeing your son SUCCEED? Or be popular, or date prettier girls than you got at his age???

    I was a stone loser at age 14, so if my kid is showing up WITH ELLE FANNING, I wouldn’t be like “Atta boy!” I’d be jealous and angry as a motherfucker. Who wants their kids doing BETTER THAN THEY DID? If I ever have a son, which I sure hope I don’t, this little fucker better suck at sports and NEVER get laid, because I don’t wanna be in a position of being some 50 year old sadsack and my kid’s bringing hot girls around all being a football star and popular. I want any kid of mine doing WORSE than I did. Who wants to be usurped by their son? I’d go MARVIN GAYE’S DAD on my son out of jealous rage if he was actually cooler than I was.

  • Danny King

    I actually thought the final fifteen minutes or so was when it got way too sappy for me.

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  • bluetide


    I think I see now where you depart from the rest of us. There are not a lot of universal values in human civilization, but one of the few values that comes close is that you want your kids to do better than you did. Certainly, parents might get jealous or whatever of their kids in some situations – emotions are finicky things – but it’s something that you’re supposed to suppress in the same way that you suppress the urge to shit when you’re not in a bathroom.

  • JR

    bluetide said it well…I was tempted to post something to LexG, but couldn’t find a nice way to say it.

    Clearly, LexG, you have some issues that go well beyond your oft stated problems with the opposite sex. I am a parent, and your thoughts about beating the choices, relationships, opportunities, etc., for your own children, are incomprehensible to me and I believe all parents.

    And…jeez, LexG, Elle Fanning is adorable, but she is a mere child, whereas ScarJo is a woman, and a beautiful woman at that. You wonder why people throw the “P” word at you is for just such posts as yours…is this just your shtick showing? Because it is pretty damn disgusting…

  • Kids loves zoos that’s normal! But holding such beautiful bengale tiger’s like that, is against nature ! it’s a show that’s all

  • Get rid of your pet birds and fish aquariums if you believe zoos are evil. LOL !

  • LexG

    JR, I said Fanning (or any pretty girl) would be better than my date-less high school experience. I didn’t say my hypothetical son’s amour would be more appropriate for me than Scarlett Johansson (who, amusingly, is still 12 years younger than me, yet seems kind of past her prime looks-wise…)

    I just said I would be comparing myself AT 14 to my son AT 14, and that little prick better be coming in 2nd in every department…

    Let’s put it this way: Most of you guys want to be screenwriters, directors, producers. Many of you moved to LA or NYC to pursue this dream– and probably a lot of you have floundered a bit and done workaday jobs and maybe have done OK, but you’re not Spielberg or anything.

    But now imagine that THANKS TO THE VERY FACT that YOU moved to LA/NYC and got some “ins,” in a decade YOUR KID takes over from there, and having grown up in the big city and around the biz and using your contacts, he becomes a PHENOM and a successful actor/director/writer, while you never did.

    You wouldn’t be JEALOUS???? I’d never talk to my kid again, I’d move to Japan and do drugs like the guy in ENTER THE VOID. I would be FURIOUS is my son was successful at the things I failed at.

    But in general I don’t really understand or care about the bonds of “family.” If I ever had a kid, I’d be trying to lose him at the mall or sell him on the black market or anything to get rid of him.

    I’d probably an OK parent to a girl, though, because that competition wouldn’t be there, and I’m sort of fruity anyway and know about fashion and girly stuff and Twilight and don’t really consider myself a huge sports fan. I’d be an appalling parent to a boy though.

  • JR

    No, I am thrilled by the successes and achievements of my children that far outstrip anything I had done at their age.

    Do society a favor and never have children, LexG.

  • LexG

    Okay, we can go in circles on this all day, but LET ME GET THIS RIGHT…

    Now let’s say I had a son who was 18 or 21, say. And this is me, me, right? And I’m a depressing loser and alcoholic who wants to be famous and wanted to be a writer but never caught a break and failed at everything, and now I’m bald and bitter and broke…

    But one day my son comes in the door and goes, “HEY DAD, look who I’ve brought home! It’s my new girlfriend (Insert Hot Actress That I Am Obsessed With, take your pick.)”

    I am supposed to be HAPPY that my skinny-jeans-wearing, flipped-bill flat-brim-rocking douche kid with a faggy Criss Angel haircut is up in his room making out with a CUTE GIRL that I would STILL THINK WAS CUTE at age 40-something?

    BULL TO THE SHIT, and I can’t IMAGINE any other guy not agreeing with me. I was watching BEETHOVEN 4 last week, and Judge Reinhold is married to It’s Pat Julia Sweeney.

    And they have a teenage son, and the son goes to the dog park and meets this CUTE, CUUUUUUUTE girl. And what does THE JUDGE go? He beams with pride and gives his son an “atta boy” and says “cute girl” like he’s all GO FOR IT, SON! I didn’t believe this AT ALL. Judge should want to actively MURDER his child because his son is gonna make out with a cute skinny blonde girl, and Judge is in a sexless marriage to IT’S PAT for probably Year 20.

    I don’t buy it.

  • Wes Caline

    DiscoNap: “A lot of the animals at the zoo would otherwise be under a Chilean bulldozer right now, etc.”

    WTF? as a Chilean, I feel perplexed by this.

  • Dave Bernazani

    Mr. Wells,

    Ignore what the moron DiscoNap says (the person is too cowardly to use his real name anyway); you did a great job on your review of the movie and demonstrating your opinion of zoos. And you’re right: any thinking person (which obviously doesn’t include DiscoNap) knows in his or her heart that zoos are simply not good places. They serve no useful function and only serve as prisons for unwilling wild animals. As for that old argument of “endangered species”, zoos are doing NOTHING to help them. They simply don’t have the room to keep any semblance of a population, and have you ever heard of zoos sending animals back to the wild? Of course not, because they don’t. If they truly cared about them, they’d have empty cages with signs describing why the animals were left alone rather than stuck in jail cells.

  • Thank you for your insightful article about this unnecessary film. I completely agree about zoos and find it incredibly dishonest, in this the 21st Century, to portray zoos as anything but what you describe them as. But there’s another issue here. And that’s the use of wild animals in making this film, or any other. All wild animals, whether they be big cats, primates or elephants, are beaten, severely & repeatedly, in order to do the tricks needed for show business. Besides that, they are caged most of the time, forced to travel and denied any semblance of a natural life. I won’t see this film or any other that uses/abuses wild animals. And do not think that American Humane cares about them; animals have died during films where they still put their meaningless slogan- No animals were harmed in the making of this film!

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