Animal house, fit for a family
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Dec 23, 2011
In "We Bought a Zoo," Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a widower who's been alone with his kids for six months when he decides to upend their lives and buy a broken-down zoo in Southern California. Based on the real-life Mee's actual memoir, "We Bought a Zoo" contains all the ingredients of a maudlin, treacly weeper ("Dozens of Marleys and Three Mees").
Happily, writer-director Cameron Crowe keeps the most mawkish manipulations to a minimum in a movie that moves through its requisite stages - grief, acceptance, zany sights gags and healing - with smooth, entertaining efficiency. You want the tough, spiky version of virtually the same story, see "The Descendants." You want sunshine and uplift, see "We Bought a Zoo."
The title, by the way, is spoken twice by Mee's 7-year-old daughter, Rosie, played by the beguiling Maggie Elizabeth Jones, whose scene-stealing cuteness proves to be one of the most likable things in a movie that's all about being liked.
Less adorable but even funnier is Thomas Haden Church as Benjamin's skeptical brother, Duncan, who speaks in a surfer's drawl and carries a series of mordant zingers in his quiver to defend against incoming earnestness. When he meets the zoo's comely manager, Kelly (a miscast but sporting Scarlett Johansson), he advises Benjamin to "dump the animals and keep Kelly. That's true joy."
Kelly is part of a team of eccentric zoo staffers that the Mees inherit when they buy the sweetly decrepit zoo, which animal lovers will be happy to hear isn't the jaillike fortress they avoid but a delightfully ramshackle, rambling affair of low fences and open grassy spaces. Granted, the grizzly bear is suffering a bout of depression, and an elderly tiger is facing end-of-life issues, but the animals are humanely treated and can be counted on to put on dazzling displays, especially when they join in a gutteral chorus once the sun sets.
When Benjamin stops to listen to those otherworldly night sounds, "We Bought a Zoo" settles into a nice groove, with Kelly's winsome niece, Lily (Elle Fanning), gently flirting with Benjamin's teenaged son, Dylan (Colin Ford), and the perennially grumpy MacCready (Angus Macfadyen) preparing to do battle with an officious zoo inspector named Ferris (John Michael Higgins).
While Benjamin guts his savings to keep the zoo going until its official summer-season opening, "We Bought a Zoo" pivots around that deadline, his fractured relationship with Dylan and the simmering attraction between Benjamin and Kelly.
Crowe, who made the blandly slick comedies "Jerry Maguire" and "Almost Famous," knows how to keep those balls aloft without too much strain, even if he resorts too often to nostalgic music cues to inject emotion into a scene. Still, the low-key appeal of "We Bought a Zoo" is nearly impossible to resist, not just because it provides the minimal daily requirement of hugs and closure, but because it's such an apt wish fulfillment fantasy when for many viewers Plan B isn't just a dream but a necessity.
"We Bought a Zoo" provides a welcome seasonal dash of wholesomeness and humor (although parents may need to explain a few naughty word-definitions here and there), but it's also a heartening celebration of second acts, even at their most unwelcome.
Contains some profanity and some thematic elements.