By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood November 27, 2011 at 2:53PM
With theatrical box office more important than ever, the studios have gone back to a tried-and-true method of building word-of-mouth for movies they believe in--sneak previews. Disney has sneaked "War Horse" twice now, and Paramount threw "Young Adult" into key markets as well. Saturday, Twentieth Century Fox booked Cameron Crowe's bid to escape movie jail, "We Bought a Zoo," on 800 screens nationwide in advance of its December 23 release. I checked out the movie at L.A.'s Arclight.
Writer-director Crowe and screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna ("The Devil Wears Prada"), adapting Benjamin Mee's autobiograpaphical tale, have fashioned a smart family story comparable in appeal to a film like "Marley and Me," that should play well across generations. Matt Damon carries the movie as a recently widowed journalist/adventurer who in the past six months has lost his wife and job and has to move his two kids when his depressed older son (Colin Ford) gets kicked out of school. Mee uses his inheritance to buy a country house with a surprise attachment: a zoo complete with lions, tigers and bears, run by a motley crew led by fetchingly competent Scarlett Johansson (wearing refreshingly little makeup).
Crowe expertly balances charming animal escapades (yes, Damon gets chased by a porcupine and multiple snakes escape) and various financial and romantic stakes by keeping the dialogue sharp and the treakle to a minimum. (I laughed but did not cry.) Still, the film functions as mainstream family fare and should score with moviegoers over the holidays.
Fox reports that it sold out sneaks on the coasts as well as in the middle of the country "from New York to LA, Minneapolis to Memphis, Salt Lake City to Boston, Detroit to Orlando, Philly to Kansas City."
Here's THR: "Bottom Line: Cameron Crowe’s film has some rough edges, but it ultimately delivers thanks to Matt Damon’s moving performance. "
And HitFix: "It's just a film that wears its emotions right out front, and somehow, Crowe is able to brush aside any thoughts of what people will or won't think and just focus on building those moments that he does so well, those heartbreaking little moments of magic that have been the main currency of his career. Cameron Crowe remains, as always, uncool. And wonderful for it. 'We Bought A Zoo' is lovely, delicate, and absolutely worth seeing with your family this holiday season."