We Bought a Zoo is not a particularly good movie. Cameron Crowe’s one foray into family-friendly filmmaking is a feature stuck straddling between two creative impulses. Crowe wants to make one of his conventional inspirational dramas. But unlike on his prior directorial efforts, he has the responsibility of delivering a family-friendly movie that audiences can flock to in the holiday season.
Crowe tries to make both of these disparate ambitions coexist peacefully. Unlike the human and animal denizens of the titular zoo in We Bought a Zoo, though, these creative pursuits don’t work together well. In the process of trying to serve several masters, this Crowe directorial effort ends up pleasing nobody. But for one scene, a performance from John Michael Higgins brings some much-needed life to We Bought a Zoo and reflects the kind of movie it could’ve been.
Midway through We Bought a Zoo, it’s time for Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) and the other main characters to get through an important step in relaunching this zoo: An inspection. If they want to open this place up to the public, then everything needs to be safe and up to code. This is where Walter Ferris (Higgins) comes in. Arriving onto the scene with more tools at his disposal than Batman’s utility belt, Ferris makes it no secret that he’s dubious about the prospect of a family-run zoo being capable of opening up to the public. He’s also adamant that this place will never be able to meet the standards necessary for it to be a proper public attraction.
This character functions as a conventional kid’s movie antagonist, complete with archly drawn writing and acting. If Ferris sounds like he doesn’t at all belong in a movie where Mee tells his son in front of a tiger cage about how many seconds of courage it takes to change your life, you would be correct. That disparity, though, is a key reason why Ferris proves to be the most memorable part of We Bought a Zoo by a significant margin. Whenever he comes on-screen, a wall-to-wall schmaltz-fest comes alive simply by hosting a character who shouldn’t exist in this project at all.
Even the technical aspects of the production seem to get an extra jolt of vibrancy whenever Ferris comes on-screen. As the camera cuts from Ferris’s concerned face to his tape measurer, editor Mark Livolsi employs sharp cuts meant to signify the character’s interior sense of grand importance. Typically, the editing in We Bought a Zoo is bog-standard and doesn’t do much to accentuate what’s going on on-screen. For moments involving Ferris, though, Livolsi uses well-timed edits to convey the mindset of a guy who believes his miniature notepad is the equivalent of Excalibur.
The character doesn’t just benefit from these aspects of We Bought a Zoo, though. It helps that he’s performed by none other than Higgins. This character actor may not be a name you immediately recognize, but if you’ve watched any major comedies in the last few decades, you’re bound to have encountered his work (Pitch Perfect, Bad Teacher, Bob’s Burgers). Higgins has more than earned his prominent place in modern comedies on the big and small screen thanks to his deft ability to immediately establish memorable personalities and his quick wit. If you need someone to come in and lend a distinctive aura to a supporting player in your story, Higgins is your guy.
This gift is put to great use with Ferris in We Bought a Zoo. The moment he steps into the titular location, Higgins portrays Ferris with an aloof air that’s so much more amusingly pronounced than the other characters in the film. His expert skills with comic timing, meanwhile, liven up even the most tired lines that he’s handed. Some of these quips get much of their humor from how Ferris never hesitates to critique shortcomings in the zoo that he’s been tasked with inspecting. In a movie full of syrupy attempts to tug at the heartstrings, there’s a delightful unsanded edges quality to the performance from Higgins.
What a contrast he is to the film’s primary performers like Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, who are delicately carrying around their respective characters’ personas with a detached air. This is seemingly out of concern of undercutting the thoughtful nature of We Bought a Zoo. Happily, Higgins just dives right into depicting Ferris as archly as possible, the sanctity of We Bought a Zoo’s script be damned.
Higgins makes Ferris a guy you love to hate, a person whose comical obsession with the minutiae of zoo upkeeping is just not something you run into every day. He’s a welcome contrast to the other We Bought a Zoo characters in many ways, but especially in his specificness. Mee’s central plight in the movie may involve porcupines and lions, but it’s cut from the same cloth as so many other single dads in live-action family movies. His kids, particularly his oldest withdrawn son, are also characters who could’ve come from any other movie. There’s just not enough that’s immediately distinctive about this family.
For a brief sequence, though, Ferris provides a welcome escape from the generic adventures of the Mee menagerie. In the process, he makes one wonder what a better version of We Bought a Zoo could’ve looked like. What if the movie was as interested in making all of its characters as memorable as Ferris? What if the production had employed more character actors instead of just leaning on predictable A-list talent that looks adrift in this affair? The inherent shortcomings in We Bought a Zoo will already leave you yearning for something better.
However, the flashes of inspiration that come on whenever Ferris appears make you realize this is not a doomed affair. We Bought a Zoo could’ve been better if it housed more people and performances like this one that feels more at home with the inherently ludicrous premise of the movie. Why try to make a film where Matt Damon feeding zebras seems “respectable” when you can take a cue from the performance of Higgins and just utilize this story as an opportunity to go memorably over the top?
Alas, the film we have is the film we have, and the result of We Bought a Zoo is an average and largely forgettable family movie. It’s the kind of project whose tenth anniversary largely comes and goes without fanfare. However, that doesn’t mean the better parts of it, like the performance from John Michael Higgins, should go ignored. Especially since, in this case, the lone great part of We Bought a Zoo not only suggests a superior feature but also gives one a chance to appreciate a talented comedic character actor.