There isn’t much to add to We Bought a Zoo, since the title says it all. Away from the screen for six years, director Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire) returns with this holiday season sugarplum designed to please children of all ages in multiplexes of all sizes. Based on a book by Benjamin Mee, a British writer and former columnist for The Guardian whose family actually purchased a run-down zoo called Dartmoor Zoological Park and turned it into a 30-acre tourist attraction in Devon, England, that is still thriving, the movie (written by Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna, who wrote The Devil Wears Prada) transported the setting to Southern California. But it lost none of its sense of fun and adventure in the trip across the pond.
Ben is now played by Matt Damon, a smart, gifted actor who brings an abundance of intelligence and heart to a role that is not much more than a sketch, fleshing out the role of a tired, confused, overworked and heartsick widower with two kids to raise who is fed up with journalism. Deeply despondent after his wife dies, leaving his family behind to travel the globe on assignments loses its appeal. So he chucks the job, uproots his kids and, to the shock of everyone, invests his inheritance in a piece of rural real estate miles away from everything familiar to start all over again. Even his brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church) thinks he’s turned into a nut job. Undeterred, Ben tackles the job of renovating a zoo to meet government standards in time for a grand re-opening. The task takes its toll, in more ways than one.
Managing a lost cause that comes with sick animals and a loyal, unpaid staff of four led by a tough zookeeper named Kelly (a surprising turn by a de-glamorized Scarlett Johansson) becomes a money-draining, full-time responsibility. Ben’s teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford), still mourning the loss of his mom, sinks into a pit of resentment, while his 7-year-old daughter Rosie (perky Maggie Elizabeth Jones) jumps with glee, jubilantly shouting “We bought a zoo!” The stipulation in the purchase agreement was that the new owner must restore the zoo to its original state and make it fully operational.
There isn’t much conflict, but we eventually meet and fall for 50 endangered species of animals that need to be rescued—from runaway snakes to a moody, 650-pound grizzly named Buster. Along the way, you learn a lot of things. Bengal tigers have to be separated because they don’t get along. You never use the word “cages” (they’re politely called “enclosures”). Dylan thinks he’s in hell. Rosie loves everything, including the rats collected to feed the snakes. The ups and downs of survival while hanging on by their fingernails are too linear for spontaneity, but the performances are sincere and Damon seems to be having a ball, giving one of the best and most mature performances of his career.
The relationship between Ben and Kelly, a 28-year-old animal lover with no personal life, wisely avoids Hollywood clichés, while Dylan sees fate in a restorative way when he discovers romance with Kelly’s cousin (Elle Fanning). The roles are mere outlines for meatier characters, but Damon brings a depth of humanity to the zealous but underwritten zoo owner that inspires confidence.
We Bought a Zoo has more soul than substance, but I’ll be darned if it didn’t put a smile on my face and keep it there. In a furrowed brow of a Yuletide season filled with movies so dark and ugly you can’t watch them without wincing, I see nothing wrong with feel-good movies such as this. Like the notes to studio executives scrawled on lobby cards by eager sneak-preview audiences back in the day, I say, “Give us more like this one!” We Bought a Zoo (PG) ★★★☆☆