There isn’t much to add to We Bought a Zoo, since the title says it all. Away from the screen for six years, director Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire) returns with this holiday-season sugarplum designed to please children of all ages in multiplexes of all sizes. Based on a book by Benjamin Mee, a British writer and former columnist for The Guardian whose family actually purchased a run-down zoo called Dartmoor Zoological Park and turned it into a 30-acre tourist attraction in Devon, England, that is still thriving, the movie (written by Mr. Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna, who wrote The Devil Wears Prada) transported the setting to Southern California, but it lost none of its sense of fun and adventure in the trip across the pond. Animals are the same everywhere, and so are the people who love them.
Benjamin Mee is played by Matt Damon, a smart and gifted actor who brings an abundance of intelligence and heart to a role that is not much more than a pencil sketch on paper, fleshing out the role of a tired, confused, overworked and heartsick widower with two kids to raise (see George Clooney in The Descendants) who is fed up with the declining world of journalism.Deeply despondent after his wife dies suddenly of cancer, leaving his family behind to chase around the globe on dangerous and controversial assignments loses its appeal. So he chucks the job, the frequent flyer miles and the pity from well-meaning, energy-sapping friends, uproots his kids from school and, to the shock of everyone around him, takes a plunge into ice water and invests his inheritance in a piece of rural real estate miles away from everything familiar to start all over again. Even his own brother Duncan, played by Thomas Haden Church, thinks he’s turned into a nut job. Duncan, it seems, once ran away from society and spent some time in Bali trying to find himself. What he found was that like in the song, he missed people who need people. Undeterred, Ben tackles the job of renovating a zoo to meet government inspection standards in time for a grand reopening. The task takes it toll, in more ways than one.
Managing a lost cause that comes with a lot of sick animals and a loyal, unpaid staff of four led by a tough zookeeper named Kelly (a surprising turn by a deglamorized Scarlett Johansson) becomes a money-draining full-time responsibility that costs Ben every penny of his life savings. His teenage son, Dylan (Colin Ford), still mourning the loss of his mom, sinks into a pit of resentment, while his 7-year-old daughter, Rosie (perky Maggie Elizabeth Jones), jumps up and down with glee, jubilantly shouting, “We bought a zoo!” The stipulation in the purchase agreement was that the new owner must restore the zoo to its original state and make it fully operational. There isn’t much conflict, but we eventually meet and fall for 50 endangered species of animals that need to be rescued, from a shipment of runaway snakes to a moody, 650-pound grizzly named Buster who sometimes needs Paxil for depression. Along the way, you learn a lot of things. Bengal tigers have to be separated because they don’t get along. You never use the word “cages” (they’re politely called “enclosures”). Dylan thinks he’s in hell. Rosie loves everything, including the rats collected to feed the snakes. Just when Ben finally runs out of money, a trust fund the wife left in her will allows them to open with everyone chipping in—including Dylan, who draws the logo for the new zoo.
The ups and downs of survival while hanging on by their fingernails are too linear for spontaneity and the happy ending is nothing short of contrived, but the performances are sincere and Mr. Damon actually seems to be having a ball, giving one of the best and most mature performances of his career. The relationship between Ben, still hiding from the pain of loss, and Kelly, a 28-year-old animal lover with no personal life, wisely avoids the Hollywood clichés that too often furnish easy solutions for loneliness, while Dylan sees fate in a restorative way when he discovers romance with Kelly’s cousin (Elle Fanning, who, like her sister Dakota, is growing from child actor to leading lady with sex appeal faster than a flying bullet). The roles are mere outlines for meatier characters, but Mr. Damon brings a depth of humanity to the zealous but underwritten zoo owner that is guaranteed to inspire confidence. We Bought a Zoo has more soul than substance, but I’ll be darned if it didn’t put a smile on my face and keep it there. In a furrowed brow of a Yuletide season filled with movies so dark and ugly you can’t watch them without wincing, I see nothing wrong with feel-good movies like War Horse and We Bought a Zoo. Like the notes to studio executives scrawled on lobby cards by eager sneak-preview audiences back in the day, I say “Give us more like this one!”
WE BOUGHT A ZOO
Running Time 124 minutes
Written by Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe
Directed by Cameron Crowe
Starring Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson and Thomas Haden Church