My comparison of The Descendants and We Bought a Zoo turns on directorial artistry, specifically its presence in the first and its lack in the second. Each movie tells the story of how a man and his two children cope with the death of his wife/their mother, and each movie had equally compelling settings of the beauty of Kauai and a zoo full of animals.
The two movies also feature male leads that I admire, George Clooney and Matt Damon, and each protagonist is surrounded by a talented cast of supporting actors. They were very different stories in other respects, but they both should have been winners. One was not. Why is that?
What went wrong?
I walked out of the Descendants movie deeply moved by the story’s moral implications. I had been riveted by a final scene redolent with change and resolution, but minimalist in presentation, having silence as a key element. I walked out of We Bought a Zoo hoping the director and screenwriters would never work again.
The rating system for the two movies was problematic (absurd would be a more accurate term). The foul language of a grief-stricken child in Descendants was essential to characterization and garnered the movie an R. This means that the young viewers who could have really benefited from an art form that handled bereavement with such honesty will likely not see the movie, since parents are unlikely to allow children to see an R-rated movie even in the post-theater rental environment.
We Bought a Zoo, with a rating of PG, featured a preternaturally well-adjusted seven-year-old who was the voice of balance throughout, compared to her emotionally devastated father and brother. Whoever came up with the prank of having the child say the word “dick” in a scene that had no foreshadowing, in a situation that held no humorous context, and by a character who would never have said it, needs to be fired.
Actor’s workshops always proclaim that a good actor can take the telephone book for a script and make it riveting. So, I won’t complain that screenwriters for We Bought a Zoo must be stuck in some kind of Beavis and Butt-head post-adolescent phase and deserve to be hounded out of the movie studio and sentenced to write Internet sales copy for eternity.
What I will say is that We Bought a Zoo has to be the worst case of botched directing I’ve seen in a long time. The actors were good enough to rise above a wretched script, but apparently the director wasn’t.