Sentimental tale, good fit for Matt Damon
Twentieth Century Fox
Reviewed for MovieWeb by Harvey Karten
Director: Cameron Crowe
Screenwriter: Aline Brosh McKenna, Cameron Crowe, from Benjamin Mee's book
Cast: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Patrick Fugit, Colin Ford, Elle Fanning, Maggie Elizabeth Jones
Screened at: Dolby88, NYC, 12/8/11
Opens: December 23,2011
Happiness consultants say that you should spend most of your money on adventures, not on things. You can get used to things, and after all, stuff is lifeless. Memories of exciting adventures can last a lifetime. Isn't that what life is all about? Cameron Crowe illustrates this nicely, if with too much mugging by the small fry, in "We Bought a Zoo," holiday fare for this Christmas season that seems almost too sophisticated for ten-year-olds given its commentary about the death of one human being and one tiger, but will resonate warmly with most of the kids in the audience and with the adults who will not be unhappy that they've been dragged along.
Cameron Crowe, whose long sports comedy "Jerry Maguire" enlisted Tom Cruise as a fired sports announcer, goes the more conventional route this time, inspired by Benjamin Mee's book about the healing power of animals. As expected, the movie features both macho and cutesy shots of animals, from a howling bear, a majestic lion and a tiger in "endgame" to a group of chicks at the moments of birth. Bearing down on the cuteness, Crowe, using a script he co-wrote with Aline Brosh McKenna, captures the charm of little Rosie Mee (Maggie Elizabeth Jones--"Footloose"), contrasting her infinite goody-two-shoes-ness with her rebellious and unhappy teen brother, Dylan (Colin Ford). While at over two hours, the movie tries ones patience, this is ultimately worthwhile fare that does not talk down to the small fry in the audience, never avoiding talk about the existential dilemmas of life (and death).
Matt Damon anchors the story as Benjamin Mee, whose ture-life adventure with a dilapidated zoo resulted in his publication of the book "We Bought a Zoo." Seeking a spacious house for his family of three following the death six months ago of his wife Katherine (Stephanie Szostak), Benjamin falls in love with a property shown him Mr. Stevens (JB Smoove), a ridiculously caricatured realtor who tries to convince his client not to buy because the sale would make him the owner of an all-but-abandoned zoo. The zoo is watched over by Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) and her motley crew which includes Robin (Patrick Fugit), a fellow with a capuchin monkey virtually stapled to his shoulder. With an inspection expected in one month by Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins) that could close the zoo for good unless several criteria are met, the team, with the reluctant help of fourteen-year-old Dylan, go to work.
The flirtations are predictable: Dylan with thirteen-year-old Lily Miska (Elle Fanning), Benjamin with the twenty-something Kelly. Everyone with the exception of the bureaucratic inspector (as little Rosie tells him "Everyone calls you a dick...but I don't agree") emerges likable as do all of the good-natured animals.
Rated PG. 124 minutes (c) Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online