First, don't go see We Bought a Zoo if you have an older pet or one with health problems. If you do, you might experience some moistness around the eyes, which ultimately gives you a false sense that the movie is not as not-so-great as you know it really is.
Two, Cameron Crowe isn't rock 'n' roll anymore. Which we kind of suspected, let's be straight with ourselves. I mean, he made a documentary about Pearl Jam, which is about as un-rock 'n' roll as you can get. The writer who gave us Spicoli and Lloyd Dobbler is middle-aged and a family man. The artist who once so incisively chronicled the adolescent experience now shakes his head in befuddled judgment over morose kids drawing morbid artwork. "C'mon, pal, shake it off. Check out this Tom Petty music cue from 1985!"
We Bought a Zoo is based on a true story. That story is the tale of one Benjamin Mee, a journalist who made a name for himself taking dangerous assignments in which he personally explored man's adventurous spirit. After his wife died, Benjamin was left with a 7-year-old daughter, Lucy, and a 14-year-old son, Dylan. Unable to figure out how to make life work under the same roof where their mother once rested her head, Benjamin followed a crazy hunch and bought a rundown animal reserve. He sunk all his finances into working with the staff to get it in shape. He bought a zoo and got his life back. That's his new adventure.
For the film version, Benjamin is played by Matt Damon, who brings a solid presence to the role, christening Benjamin with a hangdog earthiness. Damon's likability goes a long way to keeping We Bought a Zoo afloat, even when precocious children and obvious manipulations lend all their considerable weight to sinking it. The script, written by Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna (Morning Glory), is desperate to be a crowdpleaser, and so it's a bit of a mess, trying too hard to hit too many marks without much finesse or restraint. Damon finds the winning moments in the disparate scenes. He's funny when he's meant to be, and also heartfelt where it counts. His new staff is a crew of misfits and caricatures, but Crowe sculpts some solid romantic material in the slow-building flirtation between Benjamin and his head zookeeper, Kelly Olson (Scarlett Johansson). When it comes down to it, Cameron Crowe has always had a knack for love stories, and he clearly took some of the criticism of the last female lead he penned by making Kelly as far away from the manic pixie girl as possible. (Though, honestly, Kirsten Dunst was the one part of Elizabethtown that actually worked.) It's nice to see Johansson dialed down, playing sexy and smart without vamping.
Elle Fanning is also good, if underused, continuing to build on her impressive repertoire of young characters by playing the love interest for Benjamin's son (Colin Ford). The animals are also, of course, pretty, and Crowe uses them as active participants as much as he does background. But there the positives basically end.
It's long been Crowe's mission to tell modern stories in a classic Hollywood style. His well-known admiration for Billy Wilder has served him well, and it has also done him ill. So far, Crowe hasn't displayed any of the versatility of his idol, and rather than expanding his scope, it seems to grow narrower. You can maybe see he has his sights on another classic filmmaker here. Namely, Frank Capra. With We Bought a Zoo, Crowe seems intent on grabbing some of the same meaningful poignancy that has made It's Wonderful Life so enduring. He certainly means well, and the construction of the movie shows he has an accomplished hand and a well-trained eye, but it lacks the depth of the masters. Its pleasures are at times strong, but mutable. There is nothing cynical in how We Bought a Zoo is put together, but that doesn't mean it doesn't feel calculated. Little Maggie Elizabeth Jones (Footloose) is adorable as the wise-beyond-her-years Lucy, but she's also tomorrow's Jonathan Lipnicki. And as much as I love Sigur Rós, Crowe's use of Jónsi's solo compositions for the score reeks of New Age-y triteness. Is it possible he's made Jónsi the new Enya?
Weirdly, there are two films in theaters this holiday season that follow a well-to-do older man as he wrangles with family and finances following the death of his wife. When I reviewed Alexander Payne's The Descendants a few weeks ago, I actually compared his movies to Cameron Crowe's and ultimately decided that Crowe was cutesy where Payne was more thoughtful. We Bought a Zoo bears this out, and if you have to choose between one movie about familial grief this season, go with The Descendants. Both might put a lump in your throat, but only one will give you a greater understanding of human endeavor and some kind of emotional reward. The other just has a lot of window dressing and hackneyed skits.
Or maybe I am letting my grouchiness get the better of me (yeah, I know, I'm a critic, right?). The disconnect between We Bought a Zoo's effectiveness and its apparent quality is massive. My feelings about it are confusing. Maybe if I got over myself I might enjoy it more, I don't know. It may take time and another viewing to find out for sure. It's definitely worth a look once, I just wouldn't put it anywhere near the top of a list of "must sees."