The Austin Chronicle

We Bought a Zoo

Rated PG, 124 min. Directed by Cameron Crowe. Starring Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Angus Macfadyen, Elle Fanning, Patrick Fugit, John Michael Higgins, Peter Riegert.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Dec. 23, 2011

Animals; grievers; one child cute and precocious, another troubled and artistic; a makeshift community of oddballs; the possibility of romance: Cameron Crowe’s new film has it all. Its universal appeal and PG rating should make it a go-to film for family outings, but its overall lack of bite will probably cause We Bought a Zoo to dwindle at the box office once the relatives all pack up and go home after the holidays.

Based on Benjamin Mee’s autobiographical account of his experiences as the new owner of a dilapidated menagerie, the film shifts Mee’s story from England to Southern California. Crowe, who co-authored the screenplay with Aline Brosh McKenna, depicts Mee (Damon) at the outset as an “adventure journalist.” The story begins six months after the death of his wife as Mee struggles with the challenges of being a single parent of two young children and the demands of being a newsroom desk jockey in the quickly changing world of electronic journalism. Teenaged Dylan (Ford) remains angered by his loss and takes out his grief by making brooding, antisocial drawings. Seven-year-old Rosie (Jones) remains tousle-haired and golden-glowed, but she is having trouble sleeping because of perpetually partying neighbors. So Mee quits his job and moves the kids from the city to the countryside. His wife bought the farm, so he buys a zoo.

The home Mee buys is on property that houses Rosemoor – a ramshackle zoo that’s been shuttered to the public but is still maintained by a skeleton crew of workers led by workaholic zookeeper Kelly Foster (Johansson). The workers are suspicious of Mee’s commitment to Rosemoor, but once he opens his checkbook and gets down in the dirt with zoo maintenance, they become a united group. Inevitable flare-ups occur regarding the children’s acclimation to the place, the whammy of unexpected expenses, and Mee’s ongoing grief process. The film is fortunate to have Damon in the lead, as the actor brings a sense of decorum and realism to a project that could have quickly turned mawkish and saccharine. The zoo crew, however, remains sorely undeveloped. Each character is assigned a single trait and never coalesce as a fully believable community, something that Crowe at his best (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) does extremely well.

To be fair, this film is infused with a generosity of spirit that radiates on occasion. Damon is the film’s anchor, whether he’s dealing with an aging bear, a depressed tiger, or a petulant adolescent, or reproachful brother (Church). Still, the drama is predictable and oddly dispassionate (perhaps in an attempt to not be overemotional). Crowe, the former rock & roll reporter, loads the soundtrack with popular songs from the likes of Tom Petty and Neil Young that resonate with obvious meanings, but it’s sonic overkill in a film that’s already full of obvious meanings. A score by Jónsi of Sigur Ros is too ephemeral to jibe with the classic rock. By trying too hard to stay on this side of hip and the other side of sentimental, Crowe winds up with a zoo that’s neither fish nor fowl.

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