Widower Matt Damon meets zookeeper Scarlett Johansson in director Cameron Crowe's "We Bought a Zoo."
20th century fox
Widower Matt Damon meets zookeeper Scarlett Johansson in director Cameron Crowe's "We Bought a Zoo."

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Matt Damon plays grieving widower Benjamin in "We Bought a Zoo"

The movie is genuinely funny, sweet and kindhearted, our critic says

He says it's great counterprogramming to some of heavier end-of-year releases

CNN —  

Based on a true story, Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought a Zoo” is the kind of real-life adventure tale with which anyone who has ever dreamed of truly making a new start can identify.

How often have you been looking for an apartment or a house, hoping to find that really cool, gothic deconsecrated church, cliff house with a widow’s walk, Robin Hood-worthy treehouse or energy self-sufficient Hobbit hole? Whatever your dream fantasy home is, it never shows up on Craigslist, does it?

Well, for Benjamin Mee and his two young children, the opportunity to make a fresh start shows up in the form of a slightly run-down farmhouse on 18 acres. It just happens to come with a rather down-on-its-luck zoo, complete with a depressed grizzly bear, an aging Bengal tiger, an African lion, porcupines, flamingos and even a binturong, a Southeast Asian mammal whose musk apparently smells like hot, buttered popcorn. Seriously.

As for the humans, Matt Damon does a great job as the grieving widower Benjamin, whose wife dies before the film begins. Benjamin and Katherine (Stephanie Szostak) had one of those storybook romances that we all wish we had (theirs is told completely in still photos and mostly dialogue-free scenes pulled from Benjamin’s memory), and the pain is etched clearly on his face. His kids are all he has left, but much like George Clooney’s Matt King in “The Descendants,” Benjamin’s parenting skills leave little to be desired.

You see, Benjamin was an adventure writer for a newspaper, the kind of a guy who voluntarily takes assignments that land him in a hurricane hunter airplane. Kids, on the other hand, can be way worse. Benjamin’s son Dylan (ably played by Colin Ford) is less than happy about, well, everything. He’s recently been expelled from school and his behavior (which includes drawing very disturbing pictures) is one big reason why Benjamin thinks they all need a fresh start. Dylan and Benjamin are constantly at each other’s throats, and those scenes occasionally err on the side of strident.

Dylan’s petulance and generally obnoxious behavior are really the film’s only misstep. He’s clearly a talented and smart kid, and his inevitable acceptance of his surroundings and new life come about 20 minutes too late. But it’s a minor issue as far as the overall film is concerned.

Benjamin’s 7-year-old daughter, Rosie, on the other hand, is an absolute joy to watch. Played by Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Rosie lights up the screen every time she appears, and manages to overcome the potential “too cute, too precocious” pitfalls that so many adorable cinema tykes fall prey. Her sheer joy at the idea that the family has just bought a zoo is infectious. I dare you not to find her at least as adorable as the red fox or peacock chicks.

When Benjamin buys it, the zoo is on its last legs. Kept together by a small but devoted staff, including head zookeeper Kelly Foster (a winning Scarlett Johansson), zookeeper Robin Jones (Patrick Fugit), who is rarely seen without a capuchin monkey on his shoulder, or Kelly’s young cousin Lily (Elle Fanning), who takes an immediate shine to Dylan, and zoo architect Peter MacCready (played with fantastic drunken brio by Scottish actor Angus Macfadyen of “Braveheart”).

Thomas Haden Church does a spirited turn as Benjamin’s levelheaded older brother, Duncan. Duncan is the voice of reason, pleading with Benjamin to do the sensible thing and cut bait when things get tough at the zoo.

Lily’s fascination with Dylan and the evolution of that relationship is yet another winning ingredient in the film (written by Aline Brosh McKenna and Crowe). When Benjamin and Dylan finally get around to working out their differences, the talk they have about romance is one many of us could take to heart.

Yes, this film is a little schmaltzy and sentimental. Yes, it is, at times, a little precious. And no, it doesn’t break any ground. But it’s genuinely funny, sweet and kindhearted, and it’s going to make you feel good. Considering how stressful the holidays can be, what’s so bad about that? This film is like an antidote to cynicism.

“We Bought a Zoo” is exactly what it needs to be in this holiday season. I started smiling at the beginning, and kept a smile up until the end when, I’ll confess, I was also shedding a few tears. Don’t mistake this for frothy, insignificant throwaway entertainment. This one comes with real emotions that are thoughtfully and carefully presented. And, for better or worse, most of us can relate.

An extremely well-acted, well-written and entertaining way to spend a couple of hours, “We Bought a Zoo” is great counterprogramming to some of the heavier (but also excellent) end-of-year releases. However, I can’t be responsible if you take the kids and, instead of asking for a puppy or a pony, they up the ante and start asking for an entire zoo.

“We Bought a Zoo” is rated PG and contains a few mild (and cutely delivered) expletives.