By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
If not for classic FM rock songs overstating the obvious it would be tough to identify We Bought a Zoo as a Cameron Crowe movie. This dramedy could come from any filmmaker who spent the past decade not living up to his promise, and sorely needs a hit.
We Bought a Zoo has all the elements to become a holiday success: a heart-tugging true story, affable stars, cute animals and cuter kids. Swap Kevin James for Matt Damon, make the critters talk and you would have Zookeeper 2. It's a pleasant family diversion until the question is begged: What is a formerly radical filmmaker like Crowe doing here?
The answer must be to remind people he's still around. The decade since Almost Famous hasn't been kind to Crowe, with only flops (Vanilla Sky, Elizabethtown) and a couple of rockumentaries to show for it. We Bought a Zoo isn't a return to form because it's the sort of pat material Crowe used to avoid like the plague. Expert schmaltz and nothing else, delivered by someone from whom we expect more.
Being based on Benjamin Mee's true-life book doesn't prevent We Bought a Zoo from seeming like feel-good fabrication. Transferring the story from England where it occurred to Southern California is an example, along with turning the twist of fate propelling the story into past tense tragedy and adding a new-start romance. (I wonder what Mee's late wife Katherine would think of those latter two changes?)
But you can't cast sexy stars like Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson without having them wind up as more than friends. Damon plays Benjamin, a magazine journalist whose wife recently died, leaving him to care for their children Dylan (Colin Ford) and Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). Dylan is typically troubled, expelled from school and sketching morbid images. Rosie is adorably sad.
A change of scenery is in order. Benjamin purchases a fixer-upper connected to a wildlife park that's financially going under. Head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Johansson) leads a dedicated crew of misfits appreciating Benjamin's bankrolling but not his inexperience with animals. Species will escape, conflicts abruptly arise and fade, and a devious zoo inspector (John Michael Higgins) gives everyone someone to dislike. All very harmless, which is another word for bland.
Crowe's lone signatures on the piece are the music cues, notably Tom Petty's Don't Come Around Here No More when Dylan gets booted from school, and Randy Newman singing I Think It's Going to Rain Today while — you guessed it — it rains. In telling someone else's story Crowe loses track of his own as a cultural definer, not a panderer. Mee bought a zoo; Crowe sells out.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.