A really great film functions as a kind of invisible magic or alchemy. Through some kind of unseen force a series of images and words and music become an emotional experience. You can’t be sure exactly what happens, what element or aspect pushes a film over the edge, but when it does you know that you’ve been moved and reached in a way that is very rare and very real. It is this power, this invisible force of change and transformation that makes certain movies rise above the crop and become something special.
You, though, take another tact as a means of achieving this emotional connection. Whereas other films work with meticulous focus and surgical precision to hit just the right notes and affect just the right kind of tonal pitch, you employ something akin to blunt-force trauma or a bombing run. In the name of destroying our defenses and impacting us in a positive and uplifting way, you employ a scorched-earth-style blitz of music, cinematography, and story to reach our heart strings and play them like a slap-bass.
And it works. My God, how it works.
Matt Damon is owed a lot of credit in turning your strange-but-true story into an affecting emotional piece of entertainment. He portrays Benjamin Mee, a recently widowed journalist struggling to raise his young daughter and teenage son, with the kind of blistering optimism and charm and sadness that turns him into a modern day patron saint of lost loves. He mourns his wife to an almost physically crippling degree, and this sincerity and pain mixed with his still-boyish looks makes him a target for every woman whose path he crosses. However, his children still come first, and when his son is expelled from school for stealing and for his dark, morbid art, he vows to give them a new start and a fresh adventure.
So they buy a zoo. Of course they do, that’s your name and his precocious daughter’s constant refrain, but the means by which they come to buy the zoo is an expertly deployed piece of character building. Mee sees the zoo attached to his bucolic dream home and sees a cluster of animals and people who need his help. The adventure, the act of restoring something, the act of being the person people need, and the way his young daughter smiles joyfully all work to make him rashly decide to take on the responsibility. Even the words and actions of the realtor in this scene are uplifting and heartwarming.
From there you pull out no punches in making us care about these characters, this situation, this story. Everyone gets a character arc. Dylan, Mee’s moody son, has to come to terms with the way his father depends on him and sees him, and also learn to talk to women and open up with his feelings. Mee, of course, must learn to stop turning from the memory of his wife, and to embrace the world that remains. (To this end, you employ some of your only original/interesting directoral flourishes in a scene where a picnic memory plays out in his kitchen.) All of the zoo workers – a motley collection of misfits – have mini-arcs that they must achieve. All of these tie into the story of a surly inspector who must be won over before the park can open. Mee also gets a symbolic animal parallel to his wife which helps him to work through his unresolved issues with letting go of control.
It’s all there. It’s all front and center. And it is all shot with the kind of loving, sun-soaked cinematography that makes you think you’re watching a childhood dream. This golden-hued palette of cute animals, smiling faces and adorable children doing precocious things (the levels of precociousness in your tale really do reach almost lethal levels) is all underlined and augmented by a stirring, whimsy-infused score by Jónsi, of Sigur Rós. In fact, a climactic scene that already trades on the pathos of Field of Dreams gains a whole extra layer of emotional manipulation through the inclusion of ‘Hoppipola,’ the nuclear bomb of inspirational, triumphant musical uplift.
All of this makes you one of the most openly, cloyingly emotionally manipulative films I can remember seeing this season, and yet I don’t hate you for it. I enjoyed every moment of you, even though you did begin to drag between your third and fourth quarter. Then again, with so many stories needing wrapping up and so many climaxes needing to be set up, who could expect otherwise?
So all in all, yes, you were a fun time at the movies. Yes, you got your hooks into me. Yes I can see how you could bring people to tears and make children and adults alike thrill at the idea of rehabilitating their own zoo. You’re a baldly, openly, aggressively heartwarming film, and sometimes that’s what we need around Christmastime.
Brian J. Roan