We Bought a Zoo
A widowed father played by Matt Damon moves to the South Californian country and purchases a zoo with his family
On Film4: 31 Aug 6:25PM
In this Hollywood-set anime of appearances and identity, even the title is misleading
"Amnesia?" asks junkie masochist Angela (voiced by Bettina Devin) on learning that David Hudson (Mark Keller) - her supplier and tormentor-for-hire - has woken up with a gunshot wound to the head and no memory. "That's cool. Like we're in a good mystery or something."
"Or something" is right. If 'David Hudson' is not quite who everyone - himself included - thinks he is, then nor is the movie in which he appears. The bold title alone should suffice to tell us the precise generic identity of Film Noir, but in fact there are elements here not only from neo-noir (the contemporary LA setting, the convoluted plotting), but from action and soft porn, not to mention scenes involving such markers of modernity as cellphones, laser sights, digital cameras and internet cafes - all of which are entirely alien to the traditional noir.
Likewise the film employs a simple style of 3D animation, but with real LA footage photoshopped into the backgrounds, and its black-and-white imagery is offset with stylish colour accents on individual objects (traffic lights, smouldering cigarette ash, blood). So the film proves no less fractured than its identity-challenged protagonist.
It begins as our hero awakens in the Hollywood Hills, with no idea who he is or how he got there - and the bullet-riddled LAPD officer lying next to him isn't saying anything. It fast becomes clear that although this memory-impaired cop-killer can no longer recognise his own face in the mirror, everyone else has him down as sadistic slimeball and would-be player David Hudson, a man with many enemies.
As he tries to uncover what exactly is going on, and to learn what connects him to private investigator Sam Ruben, he is pursued by the police, by some well-armed hitmen, and by a wealthy philanthropist with some very unsavoury private pastimes. Just as well, then, that our harried hero can get some rest and recreation with a parade of sexy women as happy to bed as to betray him - because whether he really is Hudson or not, he sure shares his taste in broads.
An amnesiac protagonist. A deadpan voiceover. Rainswept streets - in sunny LA! Treacherous dames. A dogged police detective. A prison bus overturned. A key to a mysterious safety deposit box. High-powered shoot-outs on the freeway. Driving off into the sunset. If the ingredients that make up Film Noir seem like so many movie cliches, that is only because the film is overtly a pastiche, its cinematic self-consciousness heralded by the setting of the opening scene under the shadow of the Hollywood sign, and by a key crime that involves filmmaking itself.
Even the film's visual style, where the broad, somewhat inchoate manner in which the characters have been animated matches perfectly the fluidity of their identities, seems designed to strip cinema down to its barest iconic essentials. Some may find this merely cheap-looking, but there is a sleek purity to the film's aesthetics, comparable to the extreme blacks and whites of Christian Volckman's future-noir anime Renaissance (2006).
Where Film Noir fails to find its own form, however, is in the plot. The set-up of the mystery is excellent, and there are some hilariously cruel twists near the beginning, such as the scene where our confused hero goes to hide out in the dead cop's house only to walk in on a surprise party of the policeman's colleagues - but as the protagonist's (and our own) initial disorientation gradually shifts towards a greater understanding of what is going on, the story becomes less plausible.
It is one thing that he should survive a bullet grazing his skull, but quite another that he can continue living (and fighting) after being shot at point-blank range (and with lethal intent) in the chest. Few viewers will be able to accept the plot device that explains how he has come to look the way he does, while fans of neo-noirs such as Mulholland Drive might prefer things to be a little more impenetrable than the over-explained resolution on offer here.
Add to this the repetitive and somewhat flat nature of the dialogue, and the whole thing begins to outstay its welcome, but it remains nonetheless a polished farrago of all things from Hollywood's seedier side, with a killer noir soundtrack (composed by Mark Keller, who also voices the hero) to bind everything together.
In this animated noir pastiche for adults, even if the story is familiar, the names and faces have been changed. It may be an experience as forgettable as its hero's past, but it is an agreeably guilty pleasure while it lasts, with a striking visual style.
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