Now that director Cameron Crowe has stopped trying to be Billy Wilder ("Elizabethtown") or Alfred Hitchcock ("Vanilla Sky"), he manages to loosen up and be himself in the light and breezy comedy-drama "We Bought a Zoo."
It's not the same Cameron Crowe who channelled his rock 'n' roll memories in "Almost Famous," but an older, wiser and more open-hearted soul examining life and love and family ties.
The story begins with Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a morose widower in a California town, juggling the daily struggles of raising a 13-year-old son, Dylan (Colin Ford), and a 7-year-old daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). When Dylan gets suspended from school, again, Benjamin decides to take drastic measures and move the family to a new house in the country.
The house they find and fall in love with has a catch: It's attached to a rundown zoo, and anyone who buys the house must take over operations and care for the animals. Benjamin agrees, even though the financial investment is huge and the zoo staff led by zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) are suspicious of his abilities and commitment to keep the zoo going.
Other complications for the Mees include an officious USDA inspector (John Michael Higgins), Benjamin's less-than-supportive brother (Thomas Haden Church) and Kelly's cheery cousin Lily (Elle Fanning), a 14-year-old country girl who takes a shine to the sullen Dylan.
Crowe, rewriting a script by Aline Brosh McKenna ("The Devil Wears Prada") adapting the real Benjamin Mee's memoir (his zoo, Dartmoor Zoological Park, is actually in Devon, England), neatly dovetails Benjamin's efforts to maintain the zoo and keep the animals alive with his memories of his wife's decline to cancer. It builds up to an emotional climax that is genuinely touching, thanks largely to Damon's unforced empathy.
The movie also contains plenty of good humor, as Kelly manages her oddball staff, including a cantankerous naturalist (Angus MacFayden). Crowe is as deft as he's ever been, neatly balancing the comic with the tragic and making "We Bought a Zoo" a charming and fun adventure.
We Bought a Zoo
Cameron Crowe deftly handles big issues within a sweet story of a family trying to reopen a dilapidated zoo.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Dec. 23.
Rating • PG for language and some thematic elements.
Running time • 124 minutes.