Inspired by Benjamin Mee's memoir, We Bought a Zoo is family entertainment in the spirit (and fur) of Marley & Me, a freewheeling account of parents, children, animals, life, death, grief, and moving on. It is an ideal film for multigenerational holiday moviegoing, pleasant if insubstantial. Like its emotionally paralyzed central figure, Ben (Matt Damon), it takes some time to get going.
And once it does, this film from Cameron Crowe, maker of such embrace-change evergreens as Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous, sheds a lot of needles. To those familiar with the movie's source material, be advised that Crowe has changed its setting from Devon, England, to San Diego. For Crowe, this one is about embracing-change-of-venue.
Zoo opens with Ben, a recent widower, trapped in grief and suffocating from sympathy. Everything reminds the single father of a surly teenage boy and a sunny 8-year-old girl of his late, lamented spouse. He quits his job and finds a leafy place in the country, a center-hall colonial, with zoo attached. Ben's brother, Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), exhorts him, "Travel the stages of grief, but stop before zebras get involved." Excellent advice, but when Ben sees his daughter, Rosie, bloom in the sunshine of the grounds, it's a done deal.
Maybe the zoo feels like home to Ben because there's a depressed grizzly bear that mirrors his sorrow and a gorgeous ailing Bengal tiger that reminds him of his late wife. There's also a shaggy human menagerie, including comely zookeeper Scarlett Johansson, conveniently unattached, and her lovely niece, Elle Fanning, conveniently the right age for Ben's son, Dylan. Almost seamlessly Ben moves from being the guy who tried to save his dying wife to the guy who tries to save a financially strapped zoo.
Damon, Johansson, and Fanning are such naturals that for long passages the contrivances of the screenplay by Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna are not apparent. But the filmmakers insufficiently stir the lumpy metaphors, chief among them that for animals, as for humans, there is a difference between cages and enclosures. A cage inhibits movement and growth, not so an enclosure, which has boundaries but permits circulation and interaction with others.
While Zoo is a movie about Ben moving from his cage of grief to the enclosure of family and extended family, often I couldn't see the character for the metaphors.
Something's happening at the zoo, all right, but despite the good work of Damon and Johansson, and the welcome wisecracks of the gravel-voiced Church, too much of the movie involves characters declaiming and repeating motivational mantras such as "Sometimes you just need 20 seconds of insane courage."
Sometimes, but not all the time.