By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
It’s that pronoun “we” in the title that tells you most of what you need to know here: director Cameron Crowe’s first movie in six years is decidedly, dependably, and definitively a family affair.
We Bought A Zoo, which may look frivolous on the surface, is an offbeat portrait, and a comedic one at that, of the way a husband/father and his two children come to grips with the devastating loss of their wife/mother.
Matt Damon stars as Benjamin, a depressed widower whose wife died six months ago and whose sullen son has just been expelled from school.
It’s time for a change of scenery, so Benjamin quits his job at the Los Angeles Times and starts househunting. He uses his inheritance to move to the Southern California countryside, hoping to launch an adventure and make a fresh start with his two kids.
And he’s able to do just that because the house he finds just happens to come with a dilapidated zoo — the Rosemoor Animal Park — sitting on its 18 acres.
As for his two kids, well… uncooperative 13-year-old Dylan (Colin Ford) resents being yanked out of his life and away from his friends, but Dylan’s adorable seven-year-old sister, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), is all for the move, considering the prospects of all the pets she’s about to have in her life 24 hours a day.
Rosemoor Animal Park houses a couple of hundred animals and a loyal, unpaid staff, but it’s been closed for two years. So Benjamin decides to put enough money into it to get it up and running again and, in the process, put the underemployed staff back on the payroll and save the animals from being destroyed.
The bare-bones plot, nearly described in its entirety by the film’s title, has to do with the staff getting the renovated zoo through an inspection so that they can open for business, while Benjamin breaks through to his unhappy teenage son.
Scarlett Johansson plays the head zookeeper, who’s skeptical about Benjamin’s level of sincerity and commitment; Elle Fanning, Patrick Fugit, and Angus MacFadyen are zoo staff members; John Michael Higgins is the suspicious and overzealous zoo inspector; and Thomas Haden Church, the film’s most dependable laugh getter, plays Benjamin’s older brother, who tries to talk his younger brother out of his plan.
Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, Elizabethtown, Say Anything), who also co-produced and co-wrote the screenplay (with Aline Brosh McKenna), based on the memoir by Benjamin Mee, a London newspaper columnist who lived this adventure before it was transplanted to California, doesn’t allow the supporting human characters to emerge any more than the animals do, and the romantic interests that develop for father and son, although they’re never allowed to obscure or undermine the film’s family focus, are still too predictable and pat.
But this admirably understated film is a kid-friendly family attraction (rated PG) with plenty of unpretentious charm. Although it wears its sentiments and emotions on its sleeve, it never gets pushy about it.
Instead, it registers as a sweet, gentle, wholesome, lightly whimsical celebration of family grieving and healing and unity in its remarkably unassuming depiction of the collective overcoming of setbacks.
And Crowe, as interested in targeting the adults in attendance as he is in speaking to the children they’ve accompanied, minimizes the expected exploitation of the animals he has on hand for cutesy sight gags.
In Damon, Crowe has among the most versatile of leading men, an actor who exudes intelligence, decency, affability, and determination and can therefore use his presence to help an audience get beyond the manipulations and limitations of any script.
So we’ll monkey around with 3 stars out of 4 for this engaging and uplifting family tale. We Bought A Zoo is cagy enough to speak softly and still be something to Crowe about.