All movies are "manipulative" in the sense that they're trying to make us feel a certain way. The good ones do it artfully, leading us where they want us to go without it being obvious that we're being led. Some filmmakers are better than others at hiding the strings. Then there's Cameron Crowe, whose attitude with We Bought a Zoo seems to be that he doesn't care if we see exactly what he's doing every step of the way, because the movie's charm will win us over.
He's mostly right. There's plenty of warmth and humor in We Bought a Zoo, a congenial family film populated with many likable actors and earnestly devoted to pleasantness. But the movie also has the distinction of being based on a true story yet coming across as completely fake, an achievement that requires some seriously ungraceful writing and direction.
This is indeed the story of some people who bought a zoo. (No metaphors here!) Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a thrill-seeking journalist and recent widower, is looking for a change of scenery for himself and his children, 14-year-old Dylan (Colin Ford) and 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). Only six months have passed since their mother's death, and they have responded in the usual manner of movie characters, i.e., the little girl is sweetly mournful and the teenage boy is a sullen bastard. They find a nice old house on a 14-acre parcel of land that is perfect except for one thing: IT'S HAUNTED!!
No, just kidding -- it's a zoo. It closed to the public a couple years ago, but the animals are still there, being tended by a small staff that includes perky young Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), drunken Scottish MacCready (Angus Macfadyen), barely-gets-any-lines-and-has-to-walk-around-with-a-monkey-on-his-shoulder-all-the-time Robin (Patrick Fugit), and somebody's 13-year-old cousin Lily (Elle Fanning). The owner has stipulated that whoever buys the property must take the animals, too, and can't ship them off to other zoos or glue factories or whatever. Benjamin loves the house, isn't so sure about the zoo thing. But hey, look at the way Rosie lights up around those peacocks! They make her happy! We'd better buy this zoo!
It doesn't matter what Dylan thinks, but for the record, he's not happy about leaving the city and his friends and moving to a house in the boonies where he'll have to help take care of wild animals.
A familiar procession of events follows. There are mishaps and hijinks with the animals, tough decisions to make about an elderly tiger, comical setbacks related to Benjamin's inexperience, skeptical glances from the professional staff. Benjamin's brother, Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), urges him to cut his losses and get out now, before he's bankrupt. Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins), a snippy guy from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, comes around to make inspections, which the zoo must pass before it can reopen to the public. MacCready HATES Ferris so much that he has to be locked in a closet when Ferris shows up, lest he murder him. I'm gonna go out on a limb and guess that dopey shenanigans like that didn't happen in real life.
The screenplay was written by Aline Brosh McKenna, whose scripts for 27 Dresses, Morning Glory, and I Don't Know How She Does It suggest that she is not familiar with the way actual human beings function (to put it tactfully), or that she's simply a bad writer (to put it another way). Crowe revised McKenna's work and shares screenplay credit with her, and I don't know who's responsible for which specific trite elements like the deus ex machina plot devices (plural) or the convenient quasi-romances between Dylan and Lily and Benjamin and Kelly. Doesn't matter who wrote the cliches: Crowe filmed 'em, unconcerned at how transparent they would seem.
As a result of this ham-fisted Hallmark attitude, the movie's emotional moments don't register very strongly. When we do feel a warm fuzzy in the heart or a lump in the throat, we also see everything Crowe did to put it there. How un-subtle is he? In a scene where everyone's sad because it's raining, the soundtrack plays a somber old Randy Newman song called ... "I Think It's Going to Rain Today." Yeesh.