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Cameron Crowe takes the feel-good family route with the rigorously sweet-natured We Bought a Zoo. Arguably the director’s least typical film, it doesn’t dodge the potholes of earnest sentimentality and at times overplays the whimsy. But the uplifting tale has heart, humanity and a warmly empathetic central performance from Matt Damon. To quote his character, “It has lots of cool animals, too.”
Fox is positioning the PG release, opening Dec. 23, as wholesome holiday fare in the Marley & Me vein; the studio ran nationwide sneak screenings during Thanksgiving weekend to build what will likely be buoyant word-of-mouth from the target audience. Fans of Crowe’s work hoping to see him back in edgier form after the misstep of 2005’s Elizabethtown might be ambivalent, but the film’s poignancy and joyfulness exercise a stealth impact.
Using British journalist Benjamin Mee’s memoir as a loose template, the screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada) and Crowe shifts the story from Devonshire, England, to Southern California.
The film begins six months after the death of Mee’s wife from a brain tumor, with Benjamin (Damon) still crushed but looking to make a fresh start for their kids, the teenage Dylan (Colin Ford) and 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). When brooding Dylan is expelled from school for theft, Benjamin quits his job at a Los Angeles newspaper and starts shopping for properties outside the city.
Benjamin soon spends his inheritance on a run-down zoo. Long closed to the public, it nonetheless comes with about 200 animals and a motley handful of unpaid staff led by zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson).
The principal narrative driver is a mission to get the money pit of a zoo up to inspection standards in time for a planned reopening. But Crowe balances the action between underpowered-workplace comedy — a depressed grizzly bear, a crate of runaway tropical snakes — and the more heartfelt personal stakes of a grieving family. Most of the conflict comes from Benjamin and Dylan, who are too alike to communicate effectively.
The seesaw of suspense leading to the reopening becomes somewhat mechanical, with obstacles thrown in the protagonists’ paths only to be cleared in a repetitive pattern of despair followed by relief or exultation. The film is not without contrivance or cliche, but the characters are drawn with enough sincerity to make the script’s manipulations forgivable.
Crowe has said in interviews that his model for this movie was Scottish director Bill Forsyth’s minor-key 1983 charmer Local Hero; he pays homage by casting Peter Riegert as Benjamin’s editor. What We Bought a Zoo has in common with that film is a genuine depth of feeling. There’s also a lovely lightness of touch in the application of romance as a healing balm, both in the cautious attraction between Benjamin and Kelly and the unguarded affection for Dylan of Kelly’s 12-year-old cousin Lily (the increasingly luminous Elle Fanning).
As always in Crowe’s films, music plays a crucial role in shaping mood. That goes for the lilting tunes by composer Jonsi of Icelandic cult band Sigur Ros and the oldies-but-goodies shuffled with contemporary tracks.
The force that binds the characters and anchors the story in emotional truth is Damon’s Benjamin. His struggle gives the movie a soulful pull, even at its most predictable. Whether he’s pleading with an ailing Bengal tiger not to give up the will to live, lost in melancholy solitude or yelling in frustration, Damon brings integrity and intrinsic decency to a character searching for the courage to emerge from grief.
Release date Dec. 23 (Fox)
Cast Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Patrick Fugit, Colin Ford, Elle Fanning, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Peter Riegert, J.B. Smoove
Director Cameron Crowe
Screenwriters Aline Brosh McKenna, Cameron Crowe, based on the book by Benjamin Mee
Rated PG, 124 minutes
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