We Bought a Zoo is a holiday movie worth rooting for. Directed by cinema's last great romantic, Cameron Crowe, it features cute tykes, young romance, a grown-up grieving for a lost love, adorable animals and the comically crotchety Thomas Haden Church.
The director of Jerry Maguire — whose last feature film, Elizabethtown, was a heartfelt flop — seems to be taking no chances, pulling out all the emotional stops.
Despite all that, Zoo struggles to find its footing, and Crowe fumbles in getting at the film's heart. It's something of a sweet-natured slog, peppered, as are all of Crowe's films, with pop music that the former pop-music journalist loves — Neil Young Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Cat Stevens.
Matt Damon stars as newspaper journalist Benjamin Mees, who has made a career of "adventure" stories — hunting killer bees, flying into the eyes of hurricanes. But newspapers don't have the money for that anymore, so he quits.
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His wife died six months ago, and his kids — 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and especially 13-year-old Dylan (Colin Ford) — are taking it hard. School isn't working for Dylan. Benjamin decides to move, and then he stumbles into that next adventure. He'll spend his savings, his inheritance and the money he made from selling his L.A. home and buy this little zoo in the country. They'll fix it up, reopen it in the summer and run it. That's their future.
The Mee family soon discovers it's no longer about "Mees." There are zebras and lions to feed, tigers to medicate and snakes to keep in shipping boxes. There's a competent but dismayed-at-their-clueless-new-boss staff, led by 28-year-old workaholic Kelly (Scarlett Johansson).
And there's a state inspector, played with snotty verve by a measuring tape-wielding John Michael Higgins, who must sign off on whether the place is safe for animals and human visitors.
The unfortunate timing of Zoo, coming out so soon after the recent exotic-animal disaster in Ohio, robs the snake and grizzly bear escapes of whatever fun those gags promised. And Crowe, who co-wrote the script and transferred this true British story to a more generic Southern Cal setting, seems at a loss to get at his "big statement." The father-son rift plays well, and Damon really sells the line "You're breaking my heart" to his rebellious, misbehaving kid. But the budding romance between Dylan and Lily, the open-hearted waitress at the zoo restaurant played by the wondrous Elle Fanning, seems more like the product of market research than something organic.
Johannson has never been more likable in a movie, batting her eyes at the new boss one minute, bawling him out over the tough life-and-death decisions he won't make in another.
It's a film littered with aphorisms, some provided by Benjamin's pithy droll brother, played by the perfectly cast Church. "You do something for the right reasons, nothing can stop you."
Sadly, you can't say the same for Crowe — who always leads with his heart — and his movie. We Bought a Zoo, with adult themes and dissonant bursts of profanity, doesn't quite come off as a kid-friendly romp, and it stumbles when it reaches for emotional highs and lows. When a Crowe film works, it makes us laugh and then makes us cry. Zoo, despite the full menagerie he's working with, rarely manages to do either.