So, We Bought a Zoo is based on a true story about a single parent who brought his family back together again by buying a zoo–stop laughing. Did I mention it’s directed by Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire), stars Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, and features an impressive musical score by Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi Birgisson? But then again, that storyline…hm, keep it up, you’ll need laughter to get through this schmaltzy dreck.
Matt Damon is Benjamin Mee, a recent widower with a moody teenaged son (Colin Ford) and a cute seven-year old daughter (Maggie Jones) he desperately needs to make happy again. A change of pace is necessary, so he buys a farmhouse which also happens to be an old zoo in need of repair. Much of the plot surrounds fixing the zoo (in the process also fixing their hearts) to meet the standards of the inspector (John Michael Higgins).
Don’t ask questions. Just listen to the inspirational music that plays over Ben’s hopeful face when he looks at the place or sees how happy it makes his daughter (adorable close-ups are mostly all Crowe gives Jones to work with). Watch how the zoo’s repair serves as only an excuse for tear-jerking family melodrama and crowd-pleasing emotional uplift rather than to create interesting characters. And guess what? Scarlett Johansson and Elle Fanning are here to act as love interests for Ben and his son. We know this not from any chemistry Crowe creates, but because they are the only women on the farm. And we also get conflicts both minimal and far between, all having resolutions most will be able to see coming far in advance.
Thankfully Angus MacFayden, playing a zoo-keeper, and Thomas Haden Church, as Ben’s older brother, bring some laughs to this thing. Otherwise Crowe makes the whole experience generic, bland, sentimental, and eye-rollingly manipulated.