'We Bought a Zoo' Review: Too Busy, Too Underdeveloped

The new film “We Bought a Zoo” focuses on a widower who buys a new home for his two young children. The house has one amenity that didn't make it to the brochure; it has a zoo in the backyard. The zoo comes equipped with an eclectic mix of creatures including tigers, snakes and lions. Like the zoo itself, this film is jam-packed. It includes various plot lines about subjects ranging from young love to grief to how to maintain a zoo. Unfortunately, it’s the multitude of storylines—which may have worked separately—that bog down this otherwise interesting family flick.

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As the story begins, Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is referred to as "a writer who specializes in adventure.” His career as a journalist, however, is sidetracked when he loses his wife six months before the story begins.

Ben eventually quits his job and decides to move his family to a new location, but his bid to buy a house turns into an adventure itself. He falls in love with a large semi-secluded home that comes equipped with a fully-staffed zoo. Although his brother (Thomas Haden Church) rejects the idea, Ben decides to buy the house/zoo and try to open up his very own animal kingdom.

Based on a true story and directed by Cameron Crowe, “Zoo” had a lot of potential. Crowe, who previously directed “Jerry Maguire” and “Almost Famous,” has a knack for presenting idealistic individuals who face new realities when their lives change abruptly. “Zoo” is no different from that. As Ben grieves his wife, he’s also trying to balance raising children by himself and opening up a zoo.

It’s unfortunate, then, when the story takes a turn for the silly. A subplot involving Ben and Dylan (Colin Ford), his rebellious son, provides a perfect example of where this film derails. After the family moves, Dylan accidentally leaves a box of newly-arrived snakes open. In a plot device that has been seen on an endless number of sitcoms, the snakes find their way out of the box and they all seem to nestle at the Mee's front door. If this plot device isn't bad enough, the arguments that erupt between Ben and Dylan about this and other incidents are overtly melodramatic and nearly unwatchable.

Added to that is the overloaded plot that leaves little room for the development of any interesting relationships. In addition to the relationship between the father and son, “Zoo” focuses on Ben’s burgeoning relationship with an overworked zookeeper, played by Scarlett Johansson. The story also finds room to include a relationship between Dylan and a local girl in town and Ben and an older tiger in the zoo. There are just too many different plots in "Zoo", though, and the story gets lost so that when a payoff or a conclusion arrives, it doesn’t feel earned.

One of the few positive aspects of this film is Church, who is the logical brother who constantly questions his brother’s decisions. Church, who earned an Oscar nomination for “Sideways,” is an underrated actor who often settles for supporting roles. I wish this movie had more of a role for him here, but it’s too jam-packed to give this undervalued actor a real chance to shine.

Two's company and three's a crowd, but this movie—with its numerous storylines and underdeveloped relationships—feels like a zoo indeed.

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