A good title shouldn’t monkey around


hen conducting film criticism, scholars often speak of narrative, of technique, of style and of artistry. But it seems to me there is one aspect of a film that has often gone criminally overlooked: the title.

Now, a title is a very important thing for a film to have. Without it, how would we be able to reference a given film in discussion, or to decide what to see during a blissful trip to the cinema? It would be chaos out there if every time we wanted to mention a movie, we had to begin by giving a synopsis of the whole thing until finally people realized which one we were talking about.

Movies must have a title, and a good one at that. In a way, a film’s title is its most base form of advertisement: all other marketing is based around it. Dress it up with all the fancy trailers you want, no one is going to go see a movie that has a really bad title. Think: Tax Law: The Movie. No one wants that.

A good title should not only be able to give potential audiences an idea of what will occur in the plot, but also provide a general sense of the tone. And it is for that reason that the most well-titled movie of all time is, of course, 2011’s We Bought A Zoo.

Based on Benjamin Mee’s memoir of the same name, this picture – directed by Cameron Crowe, distributed by 20th Century Fox and starring Matt Damon – tells the story of a family that purchases a dilapidated zoo. They renovate it and reopen it to the public in a series of wacky hijinks and feel-good moments. But I didn’t need to tell you any of that because just hearing the title of We Bought A Zoo evokes that exact image in its entirety.

One never has to wonder: “What occurs in this We Bought A Zoo movie?” The title perfectly summarizes the action of the film. They buy a zoo. That’s pretty much it. And one never has to ponder, “What’s the general feeling that this movie will evoke?” Just say the title. Say it. Out loud. “We Bought A Zoo.”

In a way, the title of We Bought A Zoo is so functional that it makes actually watching the film unnecessary; one can have an equivalent experience just hearing the title as they would from seeing it in theaters. Some might ask of that assessment: is that a praise of the title or an insult to the content? And I reply: why not both?

The real genius of We Bought A Zoo’s title is that it couldn’t be for any other film. The same cannot be said for other titles – not even those belonging to classics. For example, The Godfather could be a nice Christian movie about a guy that two parents have just bestowed with the honor of being their child’s spiritual mentor. Citizen Kane could be a scathing documentary about the nitty-gritty of the current state of social security. The Pelican Brief could be the newest Disney/Pixar film about a happy-go-lucky bird that dreams of being the world’s best mailman. These are all actually gripping works from the annals of film history, but the title doesn’t necessarily indicate that.

But We Bought A Zoo? That could not be anything other than a family friendly comedy where Matt Damon buys a zoo with his kids to get over the death of his wife – who he quickly forgets about when Scarlett Johansson comes in and quickly becomes attracted to the 40 year old man going around making impulsive zoo purchases – in a wild, 124 minute ride that Roger Ebert called “too much formula and not enough human interest,” and featuring a monkey named Crystal and a bear named Buster.

The only time that we will ever again see another film be titled We Bought A Zoo in our lives is in 50 years from now when they remake it to insert a few more numbingly mellow songs into the soundtrack, and maybe to add a sickeningly fun musical number where the romantic leads dance with the animals.