Cameron Crowe faithfully adapts an inspirational memoir as a PG-rated family film. Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is a skydiving, dictator-confronting “adventure addict with no regard for cost” journalist as described by the child narrator who assures viewers that “nothing prepared him for this.” The “this” is actually rather unremarkable and not really much of an adventure at all as the recently widowed Benjamin moves his young daughter and rebellious son into a country home on the grounds of a struggling zoo. The on-site team of zoologist hippies, led by a frustrated Scarlett Johansson who is 28-years-old with no free time and a staff that is one third of what it used to be, treat the idealistic new owner with an “aw shucks” friendliness while welcoming the revenue stream that accompanies his arrival. The villain of the story comes in the form of a hard-nosed, cartoon-like inspector (the recognizable John Michael Higgins) whose approval is required for the zoo to reopen thus necessary revamps under a strict time limit are what propel the story forward. While there are plenty of animal-related incidents (snakes on the loose, a runaway bear), the zoo’s non-human inhabitants surprisingly never take center stage as the film instead focuses on Benjamin’s family unit and the quite standard ways in which they reclaim their lives post-tragedy (Benjamin and his son both find love; the daughter is too young to really do anything other than spout unconvincingly cutesy one-liners).
With a magically tinkly score by Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi and a soundtrack filled with Crowe favorites (think “Cinnamon Girl”, Temple of the Dog [ugh]), the film is safe, uninspired, family-friendly schmaltz that is a far cry from the accomplished writer/director’s body of work. There are more than a handful of pain-inducing scenes, such as when Benjamin is shopping at Home Depot and a kind cashier recalls how much she loved the zoo as a child (odds are she’ll be seen again before the film’s close), not to mention the film’s laughably trite climax. The closing scene does its best to manipulate the audience to tears and it almost succeeds thanks to a memorable closing line that finally, at the last possible moment of its two hour running time, parts the clouds and allows Crowe’s familiar way with words to shine through. Too bad discriminating viewers will have understandably closed the curtains long before that point.
We Bought a Zoo opens in Philly-area theaters today.