"We Bought a Zoo" Simply Wins You Over

We Bought a Zoo (2011)
124 min., rated PG.
Grade: B +

Marketed as just another cute, generic Hollywood family film for the Christmas season, "We Bought a Zoo" is a sweet, generous surprise with quite the pedigree. This is writer-director Cameron Crowe's first feature film in six years and a recovery since his quirky 2005 misfire "Elizabethtown." It might not stick with you as much as the rest of Crowe's oeuvre (1989's great "Say Anything," 1996's "Jerry Maguire," and 2000's "Almost Famous," as well as 2001's severely underrated "Vanilla Sky"), but what makes it a shoo-in against most emotionally manipulative pre-Oscar offerings is its warm, sincere heart. Based on a true story, screenwriters Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna ("The Devil Wears Prada") transplant this family's story from England to Southern California and alter a few of the details without drowning it in easy screenwriting clichés. Here, the humans and the animals both win you over. 

The "we" in question is led by Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), the "adventure addict" writer of the autobiographical source material, who has lost his wife to cancer and now takes on a lot raising their two kids, teenage Dylan (Colin Ford) and seven-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). Dylan has been acting out at home and in school, and soon expelled, so Benjamin decides the family needs to start over. Quitting his publication job and packing their house up (along with its memories), he settles on a spacious fixer-upper that comes with one minor complication: there's a zoo in the backyard. That's right, lions, tigers, bears, and 200 more wild animals! It's not exactly what they've been looking for, and Benjamin knows nothing about keeping animals, but Rosie's face lights up around all the animals and a zoo might make for a fresh start. So, using every last cent in his bank account, he takes the plunge and hopes Dylan will bounce back, too. Head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) and her optimistic zoo staff initially think the new man of the house is in over his head, but Benjamin begins to care for the animals and helps prepare the rundown Rosemoor Wildlife Park for its grand re-opening. 

Damon is the spine of this story, credible and heartfelt as a family man. Even if Ben's wife, Katherine (Stephanie Szostak), is only seen in memories, the predictably solid actor brings emotional reality to his character's grief process and love for Katherine and his kids. Johansson, as the overworked Kelly, hasn't shown this much earthy charm and intelligence on screen in a while. There is chemistry between her and Damon, but the script never pushes a romance that takes over the film. As precocious daughter Rosie, the adorable Jones is a sparkling scene-stealer with a naturalism even for a seven-year-old performer. Ford, playing the moody, rebellious Dylan, is also a natural and holds his own against Damon in some tough, emotional scenes of outside-voice arguing. His quasi-romantic friendship with Elle Fanning as Kelly's eager cousin Lily is nice without becoming a huge focal point. Fanning's natural smile and ebullient presence makes her the sun to Ford's darkness. 

Thomas Haden Church, as Benjamin's older accountant brother Duncan, adds levity and gets away with some of the funniest lines. Even a throwaway quip in reference to the movie "Altered States" is funny (when Duncan drives with 200 pounds of haddock in his trunk for the grizzly bears), but that one might go over kids' heads. The rest of the supporting cast is good, mostly filling archetypal roles that don't always feel authentic. Patrick Fugit seems to exist here merely because he worked with Crowe and basically played Crowe in "Almost Famous." A burly Angus Macfadyen is completely unrecognizable under a grizzly beard, but he earns some laughs in his strong hatred toward zoo inspector Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins). Higgins is more humorously deadpan than outright goofy as his presence usually suggests, but Ferris is still a cartoonish villain, using his electronic ruler to measure all the enclosures. 

With a self-explanatory title, "We Bought a Zoo" offers what we expect, kind of like when we go to the zoo. Though not a study in subtlety, the film never condescends its audience with a single poop joke or silly slapstick. Crowe has a light touch and keeps it right above formulaic schmaltz, as the emotions actually ring true. Most films tackling such issues as death and grief fail to engage and resort to maudlin, manipulative musical cues telling us how to feel. In "We Bought a Zoo," the story and characters already engage, and Crowe makes effective music selections by Bob Dylan and Tom Petty, and Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi's score is never cloying. The film also looks beautiful, shot by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto ("Babel"), with warm sunlight pouring into the frame at every turn. 

Obvious? Sometimes. Sentimental? Yes. But when a family film like this melts your heart into Nutella, why not? You'll be glad you bought into Mr. Damon falling for Spar, the zoo's 17-year-old tiger.