Between the title, the premise, and the trailer, how can you not think “schmaltzy” when this movie comes up? Well, if you’ve never heard the word schmaltzy before, I guess… but I digress. However, is it really just a big, cheesy, sap-fest? Self-proclaimed adventurer Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) recently lost his wife, and he’s trying to get over it along with his kids, Dylan (Colin Ford) and Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). His son is constantly getting into trouble, and he has difficulty bonding with him. And Benjamin’s brother, Duncan (Thomas Hayden Church), tries to help Benjamin get over it. And it doesn’t help when Benjamin decides to start over and buy a new house in another town… that also just so happens to house a zoo. The zoo is run by a staff that lives on the land, including Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), Peter (Angus Macfayden), Lily (Elle Fanning), and Robin (Patrick Fugit). He has a certain amount of time to get the zoo functional, though, because a man named Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins) might shut them down indefinitely.
The film has some schmaltz, sure, but it actually isn’t as diabetic-coma inducing as you would think. The story is interesting and engaging and has a lot of heart. The relationship between father and son is realistic. Nothing about the film really made me roll my eyes or feel as if it was trying to force emotions out of me (except maybe the lion = his dead wife metaphor).
The acting was solid… with one exception. While I’m normally a fan (no pun intended) of Elle Fanning, she was painful here. She overacted so hard I’m surprised Cameron Crowe actually accepted what she gave. Between her goofy faces and the unfortunate ways she delivered her dialogue… I’m aware her character was supposed to be socially awkward, but it was just too much. Sometimes, also, Scarlett Johansson made some questionable choices. She would go from fine to wigging out with no real transition. It was kind of strange. But that only happened maybe a couple times in the whole film.
There’s not a lot to say about this film. It’s incredibly harmless and pretty much what you would expect (except not as sugary). The story is good albeit predictable. There’s some good humor and drama and well-perceived characters. The acting, minus Fanning, is good. Overall, if you’re on the fence on seeing this one, I say just go ahead. If you’re a really nitpicky person, or you really don’t like this kind of film, you probably wouldn’t like it anyway. Otherwise, I thought it was pretty good.