IN INTERVIEWS, Matt Damon wrinkles his disapproving nose and says he signed on for "We Bought a Zoo" on the condition that it not turn out to be a "Disney movie."
As someone who spent the formative years of his life believing "Charlie the Lonesome Cougar" was the greatest film ever made, I'm sort of offended.
There's always a little room at the multiplex for a wholesome, heartfelt people/animals movie - "A Dolphin's Tale" found the sweet spot a few months ago - and there is something appealingly old-fashioned about "Zoo," catnip for an audience of younger animal lovers.
Damon plays Benjamin Mee (the movie is based on a true story), a man who loses his wife and worries about the fragile emotional health of his teen son (Colin Ford) and wee daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones).
On impulse, Benjamin moves them out of the suburbs and into the country, where he purchases 30 acres that happen to comprise a moribund zoo - animals, staff, the whole works.
His idea is that helping to rehab the facility will create a shared purpose that will heal his family - the movie is the sentimental version of "The Descendants," which finds George Clooney and his teen daughter on a much darker team-building exercise.
"Zoo" is directed by the long-absent Cameron Crowe, whose humanism and decency have been missed, as has his famous disinterest in what is "cool."
"Zoo" is not cool - it's way too warm and fuzzy for that, and mayble for some Crowe fans (nobody sells a groupie for a case of Heineken).
Still, it's identifiably Crowe. In nearly all of his movies, there is a guy who can't believe he's worthy of a woman's love. In this case, the mood is complicated by the fact that Benjamin has loved her and lost her, and is every day more convinced he'll never be that lucky again.
Wrong. His head animal trainer is very single, very lovely Scarlett Johansson. I like the way Crowe uses her - no makeup, no glamour shots, just jeans and boots and a no-bull exterior. The director makes her more of a subject than object, and she responds.
The rest of "Zoo" has few surprises - Benjamin edges toward another romance, the zoo is repaired, relationships are resolved. It's reassuring, a little square, and you sense that Crowe, now a father and family man, is reaching out to a new, younger audience.
Crowe's been getting some grief for going a little soft here, but I'm not grinch enough to begrudge him his cute-animal movie, or Hollywood for providing what has been the most varied slate of family-friendly holiday movies in recent history.