We Bought a Zoo

While Cameron Crowe’s resume has been a little up and down (Singles and Almost Famous– ‘up’… Vanilla Sky and Elizabethtown– ‘down’) he certainly has an unqualified knack for casting the most adorable children on the planet.

In Say Anything… (way ‘up’), we got Lloyd’s little nephew Jason (“No, my brother, you have to go buy yo’ own.”) and, of course, Jerry Maguire (mostly ‘up’) provided us with Ray (“Do you know that bees and dogs can smell fear?”).

Now Crowe gives us the family-ish serio-comedy We Bought a Zoo and introduces us to perhaps his most adorable kid yet– 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones).

Fortunately the movie itself is just as cute– and easily Crowe’s best in more than a decade.

Based on the true story (and subsequent memoir) of Englishman Ben Mee, We Bought a Zoo is sweet and charming and everything the trailer makes it out to be– and more.

It’s not perfect, but it’s perfectly fine for what it sets out to do, and it’s full of little moments that will certainly get to you.

Matt Damon (whose near-perfect track record continues here) is Ben, a middle-aged man coping with the death of his wife Katherine six months earlier and the fact that he now must raise his two children, Rosie and 14-year-old Dylan (Colin Ford) alone. As if that weren’t enough, he’s also realizing he can’t go anywhere without being reminded of Katherine and that his job isn’t what it used to be. Plus (bonus!) Dylan’s rebellious behavior in school has led him to be expelled.

With no ties left to his town, Ben packs up the family and begins looking for a place far from the city so the Mee clan can attempt to start over. But when they find the perfect house, they also find that it’s home to a long-since closed zoo, complete with lions and tigers and bears.

It also comes with its own staff, including de facto zookeeper Kelly (Scarlet Johansson), and a ton of baggage– the demands of round-the-clock animal care, astronomical bills for upkeep and feed, and the prospect that even if he gets the zoo running again, people may not come. And, of course, Dylan is less-than-pleased about the entire situation.

Crowe and fellow screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (Morning Glory, The Devil Wears Prada) have put together a very nice story that does just about everything right. They wisely play down any budding romance between Ben and Kelly, they create characters that are anything but stock, and they make sure that this is not an ‘everything-is-peaches-and-cream’ bit of gooeyness.

…which brings us to the target audience and the ‘PG’ rating. Parents, don’t be fooled, and don’t bring anyone younger than, say, ten or eleven. Along with the prominent issue of Katherine’s death (and the pain it causes), there are also several other un-kid-friendly moments, including the death of one of the zoo’s animals and a particularly blatant disavowal of the Easter Bunny’s existence. And the only off-color bit of dialogue in the whole movie actually comes out of cute little Rosie’s mouth.

All that being said, We Bought a Zoo is still a warm-hearted crowdpleaser, and while there’s nothing here that matches the staying power of Say Anything‘s hero holding a boombox above his head or Almost Famous‘ “Tiny Dancer” scene, it’s charming and fun and harmless.

Unless, of course, you still believed in the Easter Bunny. Oops.

4/5 stars