“WE BOUGHT A ZOO” – 2 STARS

“We Bought a Zoo” is a comedy/drama from director Cameron Crowe that’s based on the memoir of Benjamin Mee. It’s packaged as a family movie that tells the interesting true story of Mee and his purchase of a run-down zoo. “We Bought a Zoo” does sometimes tug at the proverbial heartstrings and there are occasional moments where the film is mildly amusing. But it’s also a movie that’s full of forced sentiment and familiar themes that play out exactly as they have in other films.

Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a recent widower still struggling with the recent death of his wife. He has two kids, both fitting the molds of so many others we’ve seen. There’s his adorable 7-year old daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) who is filled with cute smiles and cuter sayings. Then there is 14-year old Dylan (Colin Ford), the misunderstood older child with a bad attitude who is really just hurting inside due to his mom’s death. C’mon, you know you’ve seen versions of these same kids in several other movies. They both closely follow the blueprint here and everything from their actions to their relationships with their father seems really familiar.

After Dylan is expelled from school and after seeing too many reminders of his wife around town, Benjamin buys and moves to a dilapidated old zoo just outside of the city. His hopes are to start a new adventure that will help both him and his children overcome the grief that they’re all still battling in their own ways. The zoo comes with it’s own assortment of exotic animals as well as a small staff that we hardly get to know with the exception of the head zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johannson). Young Rosie loves their new home while the rebellious Dylan wants to move back to the city. Against the advise of his older brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), Benjamin sets out to fix up the zoo in hopes of opening it up for the public. But as costs mount up and money runs out, he soon finds that his entire adventure may never get off the ground.

As I alluded to earlier, Cameron Crowe  milks emotion out of almost every plot point. There are occasions where it does work especially when the film deals with the more personal feelings of loss that each member of the family is dealing with. But Crowe drags these things out just a little to far. I’ll use the strained relationship between Benjamin and his son as an example. We know that a huge blow-up is coming before the relationship will ever be fixed but it feels like it’s never going to come. At over two hours long, Crowe could have trimmed a lot of fat off of the story and the movie would have been better for it. There are also underwritten relationships between Benjamin and Kelly as well as Dylan and a 13-year old home-schooled zoo restaurant employee that go nowhere. But there is a touching side story about a sick bengal tiger that Benjamin grows close to. In a sense it mirrors what he faced with his wife and it plays a big part in his personal healing process.

It sounds like I’m being really hard on the movie and with good reason. But there is also some things to like. As I mentioned there are moments where the emotion feels genuine and I was stirred by them. And even though the family dynamic is something we’ve seen numerous times before, there were instances where they were a believable family struggling with an intense loss. The performances are generally good even though the material sometimes lets the actors down. And I also found that the true story vibe made the movie more interesting. It’s really a neat story. I just wish it had been constructed a little better.

“We Bought a Zoo” isn’t a horrible movie but it’s one that could have been a lot better. It’s sloppy screenplay doesn’t help and the movie runs about 20 minutes too long. It advertises itself as a family picture but it deals with some fairly heavy subject matter and the inclusion of a few pointless vulgarities, especially from a young child, had me shaking my head. At it’s core, the movie has a really good story and we see glimpses of it in some of the scenes. Even with it’s faults, I stayed with the film to the end just to get the feel-good payoff it delivers. It’s just a shame that it couldn’t have maintained a more consistent story from start to finish.

“JOHN CARTER” – 4 STARS

After seeing the mixed reviews for Disney’s $250 million “John Carter”, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It’s the kind of movie that you automatically expect to receive some unfavorable reviews. It’s a large-scaled science fiction epic and they simply don’t appeal to a certain group of people. I’m a pretty big sci-fi fan but even I had concerns going in to “John Carter”. Being someone completely unfamiliar with the source material, could the movie pull me into its enormous, sprawling world? Could Taylor Kitsch headline such a huge, ambitious project? Let me just say I was thoroughly drawn in right from the start of the film and Kitsch, while certainly not profound, does enough to get the job done.

“John Carter” is based on of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel “A Princess of Mars”, the first book of the 11-volume “Barsoom” series. The movie starts with Edgar Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) arriving in Richmond, Virginia after inheriting the estate of his recently deceased uncle, John Carter (Kitsch). Edgar hasn’t seen his uncle in years but he’s always cherished the wonderful stories he used to tell. Edgar is given a private journal that John Carter said was to only be read by his nephew. It’s through Edgar’s reading of the journal that we’re whisked away on the interplanetary journey that makes up the majority of the story.

In the journal John Carter writes of his time prospecting for gold in the Arizona Territory after the Civil War. He’s taken into custody by a U.S. Calvary officer (Bryan Cranston) who wants to recruit him to join their fight against the Apache. Carter finds himself caught in the middle of a shootout between the Calvary and the Apache. He takes shelter in a cave where he finds not only gold but a mysterious medallion that ends up transporting him to what he later finds out to be Mars. He quickly finds that the planet is inhabited by a race of four-armed aliens called Tharks. Their leader, Tars Tarkas (Willem DaFoe) takes a liking to him and is especially intrigued by Carter’s newfound gravity-manipulating leaping abilities. We also learn that two humanoid cities, Helium and Zodanga, are at war with each other. At the center of the conflict is the beautiful Princess Dejah (Lynn Collins). Her father and Helium leader (Ciaran Hinds) is pressured into giving his daughter in marriage to an evil Zodanga general (Dominic West) in hopes that it will bring peace between the two groups. Dejah wants no part of it and of course John Carter finds himself right in the middle of it.

The movie puts together a solid supporting cast of quality actors. In addition to DaFoe, Hinds, West, and Cranston we also get Mark Strong  as the leader of the god-like Holy Therns, a sinister group of shape-shifting eternals who have been manipulating historical events on several planets. Strong is good here and he adds yet another solid “bad guy” performance to his resume. Thomas Haden Church has a lot of fun playing an evil Thark who desperately wants to overthrow Tarkas and gain power over the Alien tribe. But the main focus is on Taylor Kitsch. The first thing you notice is that he has all the physical attributes needed to play John Carter. He’s quite believable and he certainly knows how to handle a sword. The one thing I noticed is that he didn’t have a very wide range of emotions. The character is intended to be cold and reserved. But there are scenes that call for more emotion and Kitsch doesn’t add much to them. He’s not bad, but he doesn’t have a lot of charisma. I did buy into the chemistry between him and the lovely Lynn Collins. While her character is given a few pretty cheesy lines, she’s still pretty good and she shares some really fun scenes with Kitsch.

While Kitsch may not necessarily stand out, the special effects certainly do. “John Carter’s” assortment of creatures look impressive and its alien technologies are a cool cross between futuristic and archaic. I was blown away by the detailed structure of the solar-powered air ships. I also really liked the CGI design of the Thark creatures. Director and co-writer Andrew Stanton, better known for his work at Pixar Animation, creates a planet that’s full of life yet that looks barren and on the verge of death. And while the landscapes do look fitting, they resemble an Arizona desert far more than what you would expect Mars, The Red Planet, to look like.

Stanton’s Mars is also a place of a strained but structured social order. There are a lot of politics at work between the two humanoid cities and we even get a bit of rather corny social commentary along the way. Mars also has its system of theology that ends up helping Carter and Dejah along the way but I would be lying if I said I understood exactly how. But together, the politics and theology of the planet do make it more than just a wasteland full of monsters and little green men. It makes it’s inhabitation feel more structured and complex and I actually bought into it (with a slight bit of suspension of disbelief).

“John Carter” is the first big blockbuster of 2011 and it’s already been viewed as a “flop”. It’s mediocre opening weekend at the box office did little to cover the film’s $250 million price tag. But I have to say that I had a lot of fun with the film. I enjoy good science fiction and I feel this qualifies. “John Carter” isn’t without its faults but it overcomes them by creating a huge new world that I had never experienced. I’ve never read Wright’s books but I think I could, and I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing “John Carter” become the full trilogy it was intended to be. I’m certainly not calling this the best movie of the year. But I’m also not calling it the terrible movie that some are. For me it was a creative and entertaining motion picture experience – the type of thing that makes the movies fun.