(by Dustin Putman
It has been six years since the last feature film from Cameron Crowe was released (that being 2005's uneven but affecting "Elizabethtown"), and more than half a decade is far too long to have to wait for a director who brings the amount of heart-on-his-sleeve passion to his projects as this one does. Loosely based on a true story that screenwriters Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna (2011's "I Don't Know How She Does It") have transplanted from glum England to sunshiny Southern California, "We Bought a Zoo" very much feels like a sterilized Hollywood take on the unforeseen places real life sometimes takes us. Though safely staying within a PG realm, don't let the tacky television ads and poster featuring a zebra wrapped in a bow fool you: this is not specifically a kid's movie and the zoo animals traipsing cutely across the TV screen barely make cameos in the actual film. The focus is on the human characters and their struggles to move on when tragedy hits. It's touching and saccharine in just about equal measure, but at no point does a chimp yuk it up and wreak havoc. If one hasn't already begun to suspect by the sounds of all this, studio 20th Century Fox is clearly desperate about how to sell their simple family drama to the end-of-year masses. Article continues below
Widowed father Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is striving to raise his kids—14-year-old Dylan (Colin Ford) and 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones)—as best he can since the cancer death of his beloved wife Katherine (Stephanie Szostak). Hoping for a change, he opts to buy a house in the country, then gets more than he bargained for when he learns the property comes with a run-down zoo park in need of being fixed up or torn down. Not one to give up on something when he's trying to teach his children values, Ben taps into his inheritance funds and joins forces with the familial staff led by 28-year-old zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) to get things back into working order. Succeeding could be fortuitous for all, but first they must pass the safety and health inspection. More than that, Ben is going to have to prove to son Dylan that their decision to move and let go was the right one.
"We Bought a Zoo" is pleasant and undemanding, telling its story well for the most part when it's not lingering into areas where old-fashioned tropes come to sprout. The film offers exactly what the above synopsis suggests, and not too much more. When zoo expenses get out of control, Benjamin overextends himself financially until he decides to dip into his late father's convenient inheritance. Older brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church) is supportive, if not instantaneously understanding about what the family hopes to get out of this unusual living situation/business. Dylan puts up a rebellious act at having to start a new school, but brightens considerably once he airs out his tortured feelings to his dad and befriends Kelly's sweet-cheeked cousin, 13-year-old Lily (Elle Fanning). And, as the launch date of the park ever nears, along comes a drenching rainstorm to cast doubt on whether anyone is going to show up. Lucky for Benjamin, he's got one person in his corner: a friendly Home Depot cashier (Kym Whitley) who wants nothing more than to visit the reopened zoo. Yes, it's as cornball as it sounds, but director Cameron Crowe sells it by way of sheer warm-hearted resolve.
Matt Damon (2011's "Contagion") is unabashedly likable as Benjamin Mee, the actor excelling in these kinds of down-to-earth slices-of-life. He underplays the role superbly, his grief over the loss of his wife and the responsibility of raising his kids alone apparent but never made a spectacle of. His bonds with kids Dylan and Rosie, nicely played by Damon lookalike Colin Ford (2009's "Push") and the sickeningly adorable Maggie Elizabeth Jones (2011's "Footloose"), have an ingratiating, lived-in quality to them, while his slow-to-form romance with Kelly is so delicate that the movie's practically over before anything has happened between them. Nevertheless, Scarlett Johansson (2010's "Iron Man 2") is very good as Kelly, professional and dedicated enough to not forge an out-of-bounds relationship with her new boss, but not above laying out the bitter truths and misgivings of her current life (yes, she still lives with her mother).
The supporting cast are used to mixed results—Patrick Fugit (2009's "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant"), who got his start as the teenage lead in Crowe's 2000 rock-'n'-roll odyssey "Almost Famous," has nothing to do as zoo employee Robin, characterized by the monkey that forever sits on his shoulder—but Elle Fanning (2011's "Super 8") once again threatens to steal the show as the excitable, empathetic Lily. No fault of the actress, it is the specifics of her character that feel immensely convoluted. As the film seems to portray it, 13-year-old Lily has no parents or legal guardians, works at the zoo for an under-the-table fee since she's so young, and lives by herself in a one-room cottage on the property. It makes no sense and could have easily been clarified with just one or two lines of expository dialogue.
Disbelief can be suspended by a lot when one is dealing with a film as sentimental and heart-driven as "We Bought a Zoo," but the film does include a particularly far-fetched scene that travels beyond illogical (let's only say that it involves a tree that has fallen over and blocked the road). This numbskull moment aside, Cameron Crowe has succeeded in making a light, cozy fable, exemplified by a sublime soundtrack by Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi, his falsetto harmonies doing wonders when placed over cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto's (2011's "Water for Elephants") sun-dappled imagery. The film's best scene is saved for last, a trip to the location where Benjamin first met his wife and a reenactment for his kids of how the meeting went down. It's simple and poignant and appropriately a little whimsical, too. "We Bought a Zoo" sporadically tests one's sugar endurance, but there's no disputing its sincerity.