“We Bought a Zoo” is a holiday movie worth rooting for. Directed by the cinema’s last great romantic, Cameron Crowe, it features cute tykes, young romance and a grownup grieving for a lost love, adorable animals and the comically crotchety Thomas Haden Church.
The director of “Jerry Maguire” — whose last film, “Elizabethtown,” was a heartfelt flop — seems to be taking no chances, pulling out all the emotional stops.
But 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 all of Crowe’s films are, with pop music the former pop music journalist loves — from Neil Young and Bob Dylan to Tom Petty and Cat Stevens.
Matt Damon stars as a newspaper journalist who has made a career out of “adventure” stories — hunting killer bees, flying into the eye of hurricanes. But newspapers haven’t got the money for his type of reporting anymore, so he quits.
His wife died six months ago and his kids — seven 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 LA home and buy this little zoo out in the country. They’ll fix it up, re-open 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, played by 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 into a more generic Southern Cal setting, seems at a loss to get at his “big statement.” The father-son rift plays well, as 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, feels 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, balling 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 Thomas Haden 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 kid-friendly romp, and 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 here, rarely manages to do either.
MPAA Rating: PG for language and some thematic elements
Cast: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Elle Fanning, Colin Ford, Thomas Haden Church, John Michael Higgins
Credits: Directed by Cameron Crowe, co-written by Crowe and, based on Benjamin Mee’s memoir. A 20th Century Fox release. Running time, 2:04