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"WE BOUGHT A ZOO"
(2011) (Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson) (PG)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: Hoping to keep his family together, a widower moves his kids out to a zoo property and then tries to get that place ready for the new season.
PLOT:
Benjamin Mee (MATT DAMON) is a reporter who worries about his kids following the death of their mother six months ago. Moody teenager Dylan (COLIN FORD) retreats into his macabre sketches when not acting up in school, and while his younger sister, Rosie (MAGGIE ELIZABETH JONES), has yet to show any signs of misbehaving, Benjamin is concerned that won't last. Accordingly, and after Dylan is expelled, Benjamin decides they all need a fresh start.

So he quits his job and buys a house to which a former small zoo is attached. Now run by the state, the place is set to be closed down soon, much to the relief of Benjamin's brother, Duncan (THOMAS HADEN CHURCH), who thinks the whole idea is harebrained at best. Undeterred by any of that, Benjamin decides he can reopen the place and thus sets out to make sure the small staff has everything they need.

That includes Kelly Foster (SCARLETT JOHANSSON), the head zookeeper who initially isn't sure the family knows what they're getting themselves into, a belief shared by other workers including Robin (PATRICK FUGIT), Rhonda (CARLA GALLO) and Peter (ANGUS MACFADYEN). Kelly's niece Lily (ELLE FANNING), however, is happy to see Dylan, although the feeling isn't initially mutual. And Peter is never happy to see Walter Ferris (JOHN MICHAEL HIGGINS), the state inspector who occasionally makes surprise visits.

As Benjamin realizes running such a place involves a lot more work and cash than he imagined, he tries to get it ready for its grand reopening, all while hoping to bring his family closer together once again.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Like most people, I really enjoy going to zoos. After all, they're a tremendous and affordable shortcut to seeing many of the world's various species of animals, all in one place, without the need to spend thousands of dollars and many months or even years jet-setting around to try to get a glimpse of them in their natural habitat.

We're fortunate here in the nation's capital to have a stellar zoological park, aptly named The National Zoo, but I actually prefer one that's more than an hour out of town. And that's the Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo in Thurmont, MD. It's nice because it's a smaller and more intimate place where you can get far closer to the animals than in bigger zoos. And it's been family run since 1966, something that gives the place a bit more of a homey feel that I like.

Thus, I was hoping I was going to love "We Bought a Zoo," the latest drama from director Cameron Crowe that's loosely based on a true story about -- yes, you guessed it -- a family that buys a zoo. The real story -- detailed in the book "We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo, and the 200 Wild Animals That Change Their Lives Forever" -- involved Englishmen Benjamin Mee moving his family to the Dartmoor Wildlife Park in Devonshire (following his father's death) and trying to rehabilitate the place, all while his wife was dying from cancer.

Here, writer/director Crowe ("Jerry Maguire," "Almost Famous") and fellow scribe Aline Brosh McKenna have moved the story to Southern California after the wife/mother's death. With that occurring before our story begins, the protagonist (a likeable Matt Damon) feels like he's losing control of his teenage son (Colin Ford, doing the typical sullen adolescent thing) and doesn't want that to rub off on the boy's younger sister (a cute Maggie Elizabeth Jones, although the portrayal occasionally borders on rote precociousness).

Accordingly, he buys a remote property to which a real zoo is attached -- something that would seem like a made-up concoction if not for the real life inspiration -- and then finds it's a lot more work than he imagined, what with dealing with the staff, the animals, the regulations and a grand reopening date. Along the way, natch, the family heals itself and cynical critics cringe at that convention.

While I obviously knew that was coming - and how could I or anyone for that matter not see it from miles away, or at least the beginning of the flick -- it didn't bother me too much. That said, like any zoo that's varied in its presentation and attractions you like and others that might bore you, the film comes off the same way. In fact, it's rare to find a flick like this where it's all over the place in terms of tone as well as scenes that work quite well and others that aren't as successful.

Yes, I get that some of the animal scenes as well as whacky characterizations and performances are designed as slight or even full-on comic relief to offset the more serious elements (including that of father-son strife, the aftereffects of the loss of the mother, an ailing tiger that most everyone thinks needs to be euthanized, etc.).

But Crowe and company probably could have done a better job of melding or at least segueing between such disparate material. As it stands, it's occasionally fairly jarring making such tonal moves, while some scenes are just plain strange, such as when a grizzly escapes from the zoo and twice encounters Damon's character (and is menacing, but undercut by a lighthearted score).

That said, I liked the flick more often than not, especially when it hits the right notes about dealing with loss. Damon feels comfortable in the role, and Scarlett Johansson has stepped down her va-va-voom sex appeal many notches to play the unattached lead zookeeper (yes, you also pretty much know where that set-up is headed). Angus Macfadyen and Thomas Haden Church are around for more comic relief, while former Crowe star Patrick Fugit (from "Almost Famous") and rising star Elle Fanning appear in smaller parts.

This is pretty much instantly forgettable stuff once you'll be away from it for a while. But like a real zoo experience, it has enough charms and winning moments to make it enjoyable enough during the actual visit. "We Bought a Zoo" rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed December 1, 2011 / Posted December 23, 2011


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