A grieving family regains its spark when working with a group of caring keepers to restore a run-down animal park in “We Bought a Zoo,” new from “Jerry Maguire” and “Almost Famous” filmmaker Cameron Crowe.
Warm and fuzzy indeed is this drama, and when on target, it delivers those traits with a brightness and sincerity that affirm Crowe’s status as a wizard of positive spirit. But too often, it simply lays on the hokum.
Adapted from the book by British journalist Benjamin Mee and reset in Southern California, the film combines memoir-based uplift and fish-out-of-water dramedy, with Crowe’s trademark lack of cynicism (and a rock soundtrack, of course) setting the tone.
Like his previous films, it contains a protagonist who embarks on a new path and has the experience of a lifetime.
Matt Damon plays Benjamin, a journalist dealing with the recent death of his wife and its effect on precocious 7-year-old daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and angry 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford).
After Dylan gets expelled from school, Benjamin decides to relocate the family to rural surroundings, but, ignoring the advice of his accountant brother (Thomas Haden Church), he buys a home with a doozy of a catch: It includes a zoo, which Benjamin must maintain.
Determined to succeed, Benjamin puts all his inheritance money into renovating the dilapidated facility. He earns the respect of his initially skeptical staff, including hardworking zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson).
The fix-up effort results in meaningful human connections for all. Dylan becomes friends with 13-year-old Lily (Elle Fanning).
Damon delivers a winningly earnest performance, conveying conviction and decency. Whether his character is giving an ailing tiger a pep talk or exploding into an argument with his son, he keeps us engaged.
The film also deserves credit for not letting its romantic elements take over the plot.
The problem is that Crowe and co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna take their potentially affecting characters and scenarios into contrived terrain, complete with sappy flashbacks featuring Benjamin’s dead wife. A ridiculously persnickety zoo inspector, hogging the final act, is tedious.
Supporting characters, meanwhile, are barely more developed than Buster the bear. Who are these people who have been working without pay out of devotion for the animals in their care? Johansson has little to do besides serve as an eventual love interest for Damon’s Benjamin.
All of which totals a generally agreeable film, but overall just another case of a truth-based drama that feels phony.
Note for “Almost Famous” fans: Patrick Fugit, who played the teen rock journalist, appears here as a zoo staffer.