We Bought a Zoo (PG)
Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Kimball's Peak Three, Tinseltown
Remember Jonathan Lipnicki? He was the glasses-wearing, tow-headed kid who starred as Renee Zellweger's son in Cameron Crowe's Jerry Maguire, earning the romantic comedy set in the sports world appeal with women as well as men.
Crowe, who has made a career by making it cool to be almost grown up with films like Almost Famous and Say Anything, goes down the same road with Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who plays Matt Damon's daughter in Crowe's new PG-rated We Bought a Zoo. She's a little girl who is so adorable it's shameless that she out-cutes the zoo's animals. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie isn't as sweet.
Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a San Diego journalist and widower raising two kids. There's Rosie and her older brother Dylan (Colin Ford), a tween far more interested in his art than the rest of his studies. Things have stagnated since their mother died, so despite the protestations of his brother (Thomas Haden Church), Benjamin packs up the family and moves to, well, a zoo.
Yes, a decrepit zoo, run by a motley bunch led by 26-year-old Kelly Foster, played by none other than Scarlett Johansson. The question isn't whether or not Benjamin and Kelly will eventually fall for one another — that should be obvious already — but whether or not they and the other kooky employees can get the zoo up to snuff so that the local zoo inspector, played here by John Michael Higgins, will let them open up and earn enough money to keep the staff employed and the exotic animals from being euthanized.
No pressure, right? Actually, that's sort of the problem. We Bought a Zoo is rated PG, remember, which means that the stakes can't be that high, since parents are going to bring their 8-year-olds to see it. Yes, there's some drama; yes, there are some sick animals; but no, you'll never be in doubt as to whether Benjamin can actually keep the zoo afloat, or whether he'll be able to bond with Dylan, or whether Dylan will finally get it together enough to bond with Lily (Elle Fanning), the only other kid his age at the zoo.
It all feels as maudlin and cloying as it sounds, though Damon occasionally is able to rise above the material and lend it some importance and gravitas. Most of the other characters, however, who exist outside Benjamin's family unit, are given short shrift, and are little more than caricatures or affectations — including, sadly, Patrick Fugit, star of Almost Famous — than real people. It's less that We Bought a Zoo feels phony than that it just feels so damn safe, even when the snakes get loose or the porcupines get frisky.
And no, safe isn't necessarily bad. Let's face it, when you take your family to the zoo, safe and predictable is exactly what you're looking for. It isn't, however, what you look for in a Cameron Crowe movie, but if you buy tickets to We Bought a Zoo, you should know exactly what kind of beast you're buying.