(Cameron Crowe, 2011)
Cameron Crowe specialises in likeable films. Even the single unmitigated disaster in his career - Elizabethtown - flirts with a sort of cheery likableness many directors would struggle for. All of his work is set in a warm, pretty version of the real world, filled with interesting, witty, quirky people (often helpfully played by beautiful movie stars) and soundtracked to classic rock and alternative music.
We Bought A Zoo is no different. What makes it, and the best of Crowe's work, so interesting is the dissonances and tensions created by his tackling of bigger, darker themes than his world can really cope with. Almost Famous was about innocence and adulthood, Jerry Maguire about integrity, personal and corporate, and this film is about grief and loss.
It follows Benjamin Dee (Matt Damon) as he tries to help his 14 year old son and 7 year old daughter through the aftermath of their mothers death by relocating them and purchasing an ailing zoo, which requires maintenance and renovation if it is to reopen in time for the lucrative summer season, the profits from which will enable it to survive. The Zoo is staffed by an appealing bunch of eccentrics headed by the driven Kelly (Scarlett Johansson).
That's a pretty classically generic set-up, providing a stage upon which everybody can learn and grow and change in an appallingly touchy-feely way; and We Bought A Zoo certainly contains more than it's fair share of that sort of material. There are many cute animal scenes, an over-extended metaphor involving a tiger, unlikely bonding, and against-the- odds triumph over adversity scenes aplenty. It's all a bit too long, and not quite funny enough with all it's schmaltz and sentiment.
But it works.
Crowe ensures it charms, aided by a relaxed Damon and Johansson in her most girl-next-door role in an age. Then there is Thomas Haden Church, given all of the best lines as Damon's worried brother, and a nice soundtrack which mixes the usual Tom Petty, Neil Young and Pearl Jam with a new Jonsi score to good effect. Crowe still has no appreciable visual style, but he's not afraid of big emotional scenes; here are multiple conversations about mourning a loved one and coping with loss, children dealing with grief and adults trying not to. If that comes across mostly as a slightly pat, easy sentimentality, then the few scenes where it becomes touching just about make up for that.