Pitched somewhere between an earnest and romantically idealistic chronicle of loss and hope and a poignant examination of grief and bitter pains of family, Cameron Crowe's "We Bought A Zoo," occasionally still slathers it on too thick with the saccharine sentimentality and telegraphed romantic clichés, but by and large, the picture still succeeds in its heartwarming aims thanks to its naked, heart-on-its sleeve sincerity. Not an easy trick in an age of cynicism and information, but one that ultimately works regardless.
And the heartfelt, sun-stroked film essentially vacillates between two points of light – the sad-sack melancholy of grief and heartache as sonically expressed by Bob Dylan, Temple Of The Dog, My Morning Jacket, Bon Iver and the bittersweet likes – and the stadium-like anthemic optimism generally rendered by Jónsi’s (of Icelandic band Sigur Rós) glimmering elfin-score. As per usual in Crowe films, music is everything.
As Benjamin Mee, Matt Damon plays a father barely keeping his head above water. His wife Katherine (played by Stephanie Szostak in brief flashback) passed away from cancer six months ago and as an adventure-junkie journalist, always looking for the next adventure, parenthood as a single father isn’t what he envisioned. His petulant 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford) is a ball of anger and resentment at the world, acting out with dark, graphic drawings that are spooking his teachers and classmates alike. And his 7-year-old daughter Rosie (a super endearing Maggie Elizabeth Jones), while a helpful and resilient ball of sunshine, still needs a parent to guide her along the way.
As his older brother Duncan Mee, Thomas Haden Church is a good soulful comic-relief counterpoint to Damon’s deep and serious lead trying to jump headfirst into a new “adventure” he knows nothing about. Mee’s especially unqualified and out of his depth as an owner of a zoo; the park soon becomes a bottomless money pit, but his resolve to keep it running is both a testament to his dreams and a tribute to his departed wife. That may sound like pretty middle of the road stuff and that's essentially what it is. For better or worse, Crowe's 'Zoo' is unapologetically mainstream.
Scarlett Johansson plays Kelly Foster, the tough, no-nonsense lead zoo keeper, and potential object of affection for Benjamin, and while their romance is charmingly skirted around and flirted with, it’s also wisely not very consummated. The zoo groundskeepers are rounded out by Patrick Fugit, Carla Gallo, Angus Macfadyen and Elle Fanning. John Michael Higgins plays a rather cartoonish and fey villain as the inspector who may or may not give them their license for their intended July opening. Fortunately his character only appears sparingly.
While Scarlett Johansson is good as the hardworking, good listening keeper and Damon aces each pivotal scene – including a heartfelt and painfully raw scene here he and his son scream their pain and anguish at each other – it’s actually Elle Fanning as Johansson’s innocent and naïve cousin who steals every scene she’s in. The girl radiates her character’s sense of joy and wonder, continuing to prove to she's one to watch.
Thankfully, much more “Jerry Maguire” than “Elizabethtown,” while ‘Zoo’ is unven and pushes the uplifting/inspirational button far too often in its syrupy last act, it is undeniably a feel-good crowd-pleaser that will likely find holiday-ready audiences laughing and weeping in all the intended places. The cynical-hearted will sneer at Crowe’s latest endeavor and periodically, you’d be hard-pressed to fault them, but “We Bought A Zoo” does feel-good well, and like a deeply-felt cry that feels well-earned, it feels rather satisfying. Sure, there’s a little sunshine around every dark corner is about as cliché as you can get, but Crowe makes that familiar mood feel awfully human, meaningful and occasionally even momentous. [B]