We Bought A Zoo

Fri, Mar 16, 2012, 00:00

Directed by Cameron Crowe. Starring Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Patrick Fugit, Colin Ford, Elle Fanning, Angus Macfadyen, Peter Riegert PG cert, general release, 124 min

BENJAMIN MEE (Damon) is grieving the loss of his wife and struggling with parental issues when he jacks in his job and buys a rundown zoo.

Sunny seven-year-old daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, adorable) couldn’t be happier with her new pet pheasants, grizzly and tigers. But sullen and difficult teen Dylan (Colin Ford) is most put out by the move and retreats, oblivious to the keen attentions of homeschooled goofball Elle Fanning, into drawing decapitated heads.

Can the zoo’s oddball staff – earnest, pouting zookeeper Scarlett Johansson, drunken enclosure designer Angus Macfadyen, Patrick Fugit with a capuchin monkey on his shoulder – glue the dysfunctional family back together? And will the zoo be ready in time for the villainous inspector’s visit?

There’s just no contest. Cameron Crowe is, hands down, the nicest man in show business. Ask anyone. And what’s more, everybody loves the idea of Cameron Crowe. The life of the one-time teenage Rolling Stone scribe turned Academy Award-winning film-maker is a Cinderella story worth cheering for. If this were, in fact, Say Anything or Jerry Maguire or most other Cameron Crowe movies we’d be on our feet right now.

Sadly, life in the reviewing classes bears scant resemblance to a Cameron Crowe joint. Too often, our days have been ruined by, well, Cameron Crowe movies. Too often, the director’s trademark cutesy-pie soft-heartedness has translated into the more mawkish moments of Singles and Almost Famous. And then came the twin catastrophes of Vanilla Sky and Elizabethtown. Let’s never speak of the papier-mâché dove again.

We Bought a Zoo is a return to form for the writer-director. An excellent family flick jollied along by fine performances and decent- mindedness, it unfolds like military assault on the tear ducts. Don’t know when to cry? Here comes Sigur Rós’ Jónsi with an evocative sonic swoop to help you on your way.

The film works well on its own shamelessly manipulative terms even though the rational part of your brain keeps chiming in with a recent Peta press release on the matter: to run a zoo “does not just require ‘heart’”.

TARA BRADY