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NEW YORK – Returning to dramatic features after a six-year break, Cameron Crowe takes the feelgood 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 as wholesome holiday fare in the Marley & Me vein, opening Dec. 23; the studio ran nationwide sneak screenings over 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 on edgier form after the misstep of Elizabethtown may be ambivalent. But while the film is unevenly paced, its 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.
Mee bought the zoo while his wife was undergoing treatment for a brain tumor. The film begins six months after her death (Stephanie Szosak plays her in flashbacks), with Benjamin (Damon) still crushed but looking to make a fresh start for their kids, 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.
Against the advice of his older brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), Benjamin spends his inheritance on a run-down zoo. Long closed to the public, it nonetheless comes with some 200 animals and a motley handful of unpaid staff, led by zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson).
The principal narrative driver is the 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 still-grieving family. Most of the conflict comes from Benjamin and Dylan, who are too alike to communicate effectively.
The seesaw of suspense leading up to the grand 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 cliché, but the characters are drawn with enough sincerity to make the script’s manipulations forgivable.
Crowe said in interviews that his model for this movie was the 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 earlier 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 Jónsi of Icelandic cult band Sigur Rós, and the eclectic song selection, which shuffles oldies-but-goodies with contemporary tracks.
While most of them are given little to chew on, the cast is solid. In Johansson’s understated performance, Kelly is smart and perceptive, drawn to Benjamin but too serious about her work to flirt. Church’s wry affability is the ideal contrast to Damon’s somber restraint; Ford balances anger with raw hurt; and Jones is adorable even if her precocious character suffers from Crowe’s fondness for overwritten, movie-ish dialogue. As one of the zoo staffers, Patrick Fugit doesn’t get to do much beyond lope around with a capuchin monkey on his shoulder, but it’s nice to see Crowe’s Almost Famous alter ego along for the ride.
The force that binds the disparate characters together 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 at his son about a shared pain that neither of them can express, Damon brings integrity and intrinsic decency to a character just searching for the courage to emerge from grief.
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