Six months after losing his wife, Benjamin (Damon) quits his job as an LA newspaper man and takes his two kids (Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones) off to live in a ramshackle country house with a run-down zoo attached. Despite knowing little about zoos, Benjamin decides to bring it back to life, with the help of unpaid zookeeper Kelly (Johansson).
Billy Wilder, hero of We Bought A Zoo director Cameron Crowe, once said that there’s “good sentimentality” and “bad sentimentality”. For his first film since Elizabethtown — six years ago — Crowe’s take on a grieving husband who tries to turn his life around by doing up a dilapidated zoo surfs somewhere directly between the two, not resonant enough to be deeply moving but too genuine to feel ersatz. It feels blander, less Cameron Crowe-y than Crowe’s best efforts but still has flashes of his unique tone of voice, skill with actors and ability to find the poetry in everyday relationships.
Scripted by Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, Morning Glory), the movie transposes Benjamin Mee’s memoir from Dartmoor to California and is a synthesis of the pair’s writing sensibilities, switching between a McKenna-esque workplace comedy (morose grizzly bear Buster on antidepressants, a crateful of snakes on the loose) and the more touchy-feely territory of Crowe, ranging from the angst of adolescent love (a luminous Elle Fanning) to a heartfelt depiction of a grieving family — the rows between father and son fizz with frustration and add much needed bite.
The major plot driver revolves around Benjamin and gang’s attempts to get the zoo up to the standards of a pernickety inspector (John Michael Higgins) in time for the grand opening, but Crowe is never at his best building momentum in narratives, the ups and downs of the zoo never really relaying into something compelling. Yet Crowe has considerable feel for creating atmosphere, a poignant melancholic first half hour giving way to something much warmer in which to bask.
Cameron also gets good work from the likable ensemble — Scarlett Johansson’s Zoo Keeper makes for a grounded, tentative love interest, Thomas Hayden Church is an affable older brother and keep ’em peeled for Almost Famous’ Patrick Fugit, all grown up with a monkey on his shoulder — led by the inherently decent Matt Damon who, whether it is nursing poorly Bengal tiger Spar or trying to keep his family together, gives the film a winning centre.
Zoo is the antithesis of edgy, an overlong, all encompassing experience that despite Crowes integrity and lightness of touch doesnt deliver the emotional experience of, say, Jerry Maguire or Almost Famous. Still, it is good to have the righteous dude ba