Movie review:  We Bought a Zoo
2011 20th Century Fox

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Family

Opens locally Friday, December 23rd, 2011 (check for showtimes)

Run Time: 2 hours 4 minutes, Rated PG

Starring: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Elle Fanning, Thomas Haden Church, Larry Miller

Directed by Cameron Crowe (Elizabethtown, Vanilla Sky, Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire)

A widowed father decides to buy a dilapidated house and moves there with his two children. There is a catch though: The house comes with a zoo.

A plot this unbelievable had to be based on a true story, and this one is (it is based on the memoir of Benjamin Mee, with the small exception that the actual Benjamin Mee lived in England, not Southern California). Ben is played by Matt Damon, whom I believe is one of our generation’s most gifted actors. Here, despite a solid effort, Damon is confined to a hackneyed caricature of the troubled father who can’t quite get a grip on things. At each turn we witness plot contraptions that move the story along, touching on all of the inevitable and predictable conclusions typical of PG-rated family drama.

With his young rebellious son Dylan (Colin Ford) and his too-cute daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), he decides to buy the property and fix up the zoo, which is still inhabited by a slew of exotic animals. The zookeepers just so happen to come with the property as well somehow. They need to fix up the zoo, and pass inspection in order to open it up to the public. The family may be in worse shape than the zoo, and along the way the three try to mend their own issues as well.

We Bought a Zoo is harmless, optimistic, and sweet for sure. However, there is just a flurry of disappointments to navigate through, all starting with the script and the premise. Everything has that “only-in-the-movies” tactility…occurrences that make us suspend our belief past the breaking point. Like Scarlett Johansson, as a hot zookeeper who just so happens to be single? Exotic animals that just happen to be at an abandoned house and for sale? You guessed it, the zoo inspector (John Michael Higgins) is hoping for failure, because in movies like this, there needs to be that villain rooting against our protagonist. And poor Thomas Haden Church shows up as Benjamin’s brother, playing the identical wise-cracking buddy role that earned him much praise in Sideways. Talk about predictable type-casting.

The zoo upkeep storyline is actually the least compelling in the film. There is a lot of father/son and family dynamic that gets brushed over, and it’s a shame because that’s where the movie shows signs of strength. In fact, there is one scene between Matt Damon and young Colin Ford that was truly brilliant…it was an unexpected dose of serious drama coming from the shallow constrains of the surrounding film.

Small moments like that one make We Bought a Zoo bearably average…if you can justify the price of admission for such fluff.