We Bought a Zoo
Starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johannson
Directed by Cameron Crowe
124 min., PG-13
Release date Dec. 23, 2011
If you’re a half hour into this movie and forget its title, don’t worry. You’ll be reminded each of the three times someone says…
“We bought a zoo!”
It’s loosely based on a true story with Matt Damon in the role of Benjamin Mee, a journalist whose creative juices dried up after his wife’s death from an unspecified condition (in the book on which the movie is based, it’s brain cancer).
Struggling with a difficult teenage son (Colin Ford, who plays young Sam Winchester on TV’s “Supernatural”), uninterested in the sexy sympathies of single women who tempt him with homemade lasagna, and trying to be both mom and dad to his precocious daughter (7-year-old Maggie Elizabeth Jones), Mee does what any mourning, overwhelmed single parent adrift in a career crisis would do.
“We bought a zoo!,” as his daughter helpfully explains to Mee’s disapproving older brother (Thomas Hayden Church), who dryly advises his recently widowed little bro to “travel the stages of grief, but stop before zebras are involved.”
Mee doesn’t listen, of course. He snatches up the rundown zoo lock, stock and barrel, including its motley crew of idealistic, workaholic staffers, most notably a lovely zookeeper (Scarlett Johansson) and her teenage niece (Elle Fanning).
It’s a just a matter of time before sparks fly, love blooms, animals escape, the bank account runs dry, and a zoo inspector threatens to shut the whole place down.
Director Cameron Crowe was once Hollywood’s edgy wonder boy, a former star “Rolling Stone” reporter who made a few terrific, pop-culturally iconic movies (“Say Anything,” “Jerry McGuire,” “Almost Famous” and “Vanilla Sky”), one self-indulgent stinker (“Elizabethtown”) and a handful of rock docs. “We Bought a Zoo” is his first foray into the world of “family entertainment,” more or less. (Parents, be prepared to hear a couple of words you might not use around the Sunday roast beef.)
And like a zoo, this movie has a little something for practically every customer’s taste: critters, chuckles, an adorably cute kid, romance in the rain, heart-tugging flashbacks, and themes of finding purpose, being brave, moving on, and working to make dreams become reality.
But it’s also ponderously heavy on contrivance, schmaltz and assorted gooey zoo-ey hooey, with heated dramatic showdowns that immediately evaporate into thin air, one-dimensional stock characters, and a soundtrack of FM ’70s rock classics that seem like leftovers from one of Crowe’s other movies…or maybe one of his “Rolling Stone” cover stories.
But hey, isn’t that little monkey a hoot? Look at the baby peacocks! How’d the grizzly bear get out?! Aww, that old tiger looks sad…
“We bought a zoo!”