We Bought a Zoo vs. The Descendants

Some critics have given Cameron Crowe a hard time for softening around the edges in We Bought a Zoo. But Almost Famous, for all its evocation of the fun-loving 60’s, was a fairly tame movie. It’s hero, played by Patrick Fugit, comes through the era of sex, drugs, and rock and roll none the worse for wear. And everyone liked that movie. I did, too. We Bought a Zoo is more family oriented, and maybe that’s why some knee-jerk critics are dissing it as nothing more than a feel-good movie.

But it’s the smartest feel-good movie we’ve seen in a long time.

Compare it to a similar movie, for instance—The Descendants. Both are, at their hearts, movies about families whose dysfunction comes into full flower over the death (or impending death) of a wife and mother. But Zoo is much more savvy about family dynamics, especially the built-up tensions between parents and children.

Yes, you can plot Zoo’s moves on a Syd-Field-ometer, but sometimes how you get there makes all the difference. Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a recent widower who decides to buy a zoo in an effort to heal his family. It’s not clear how he thinks this healing will take place. If the role weren’t played by Matt Damon, we’d have strong doubts about the guy’s sanity. Think Mosquito Coast only more wholesome.

Much has been made of Patricia Hastie’s portrayal of the dying wife in The Descendants. But all we ever see of her life is a brief shot of her on a jet ski at the start of the movie. The rest of the time she’s in a coma. Crowe gives us a much more vivid sense of the loss Mee’s family has suffered, especially in a late scene where he remembers how they met.

Damon plays Mee with a nice mix of grief, bafflement, and a shred of hope. Clooney’s widower, on the other hand, is all bafflement. He’s a befuddled parent who’s not appreciated for all his efforts. The discovery that his wife was cheating on him just adds to his befuddlement.

As an actor, Damon keeps getting better and better, able to play three or more emotions and ideas at one time without a word of dialogue.  His character, like Clooney’s, is also the parent of an angry teenager, but in this case, he doesn’t always do the right thing. Part of his character’s arc is the discovery that he’s treating his son like a vessel for all his own pent-up anger, shame, and self-doubt.

When Damon’s character asserts that he has always been his son’s strongest supporter, his son is pleased but also stunned. So are we. He’s never really shown it before now. You hear the complex of feeling in the slightly strained tone when Damon delivers the line. But it comes across not as a blind spot in the writing but in the character. This may be the feel-good resolution, but the character still has some developing to do.

When, in Descendants, Clooney’s character announces that he’s not going to sell the land, Clooney plays it only one way—as the right thing to do. Never is there a hint of the complexity behind that decision, that by not selling, it also happens that he’ll deprive his dead wife’s former lover of a lucrative commission.

Yes, it’s true that Zoo has all the stock elements of a feel-good movie, from a cute little girl to a cartoon villain to a mischievous capuchin monkey, but even so, the animals (even the monkey) come across as animals, not as well-trained imitators of human beings. And yes it has two budding romances that the audience is meant to root for, but both are played with such reserve that they feel more real than most movie romances.

And did I mention about the monkey?

Dear Crystal,

Ever since I first saw you perform, in Night at the Museum, I’ve felt that you’re more than a capuchin monkey. Your monster talent took you from broad comedy to the dour and  tragic tones of The Hangover II. Not since Olivier’s Richard III has there been such a nuanced performance! I missed your portrayal of Donald the Monkey in Zookeeper, but I’m sure it was another Oscar-worthy turn! (Why, oh why, must the Academy continue to ignore animal thespians!?!) But may I prevail on our friendship (for friends we are, at least in my mind) to pass along one word of advice? if you’ll allow me one small criticism, your performance as Dexter in We Bought a Zoo left something to be desired. You stood on Patrick Fugit’s shoulder . . . and stood . . . and stood! You’re capable of so much more than mere standing! Remember the slap-fest in Museum? The key-stealing? Nay, the scene-stealing itself? My friend, what happened? Have you, Jim Carrey-like, turned your back on Thalia, the muse of comedy? Or is it the crystal, Crystal? Say it isn’t so! May  your next theatrical outing allow you to express the full range of your talent.

With bated breath,
Your friend

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Author: Brent Spencer

I'm a writer of fiction, creative non-fiction, and screenplays. My most recent book, a memoir, is Rattlesnake Daddy: A Son's Search for His Father. I live on an acreage in eastern Nebraska and teach creative writing at Creighton University. You can find out more about me and at http://brentspencerwriter.com. (Photo credit: Miriam Berkley)

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