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We Bought a Zoo


Stars: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Patrick Fugit, Colin Ford, Elle Fanning, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, John Michael Higgins, Angus MacFadyen, Peter Riegert, Stephanie Szosak, J.B. Smoove

Director: Cameron Crowe

The sheer unrelenting niceness and accompanying tsunami of sentimentality created by co-writer (with Aline Brosh McKenna) and director Crowe that I had to keep reminding myself that We Bought a Zoo is actually based on a true story, the memoir “We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Broken-Down Zoo, and the 200 Animals That Changed a Family Forever”. As served up by Crowe and a dedicated hard working cast (and decency demands that I include in that praise the animals and their off-screen trainers), the reworked and now set in California instead of its original England-set ‘true’ story comes across like Hollywood at its most relentlessly family friendly and feelgood.

Still suffering badly from the loss of his wife, L.A. newspaper columnist Damon quits his job to start a new life for him and his 7-year-old daughter Jones and 14-year-old son Ford. He buys a new house and 18 acres of land, which just happens to include a zoo managed by Johansson and her team. Cue feel-good fun ad lib along with animal antics, teenage romantic angst and a battle against time and another against a skeptical inspector to reopen the zoo…

Damon (having put on a tad of weight since his secret agent outings as Bourne) is niceness incarnate most of the time as, still nursing his bereavement, he has to deal with the animals, money troubles, skeptical brother Church and, notably, lock horns with Ford who feels neglected and sidelined and, making it worse, is suffering the pangs of teenage love.

I’m not sure I ever entirely believed Damon’s essential ‘Mr Nice Guy’ persona but he does brings it off, his characterization nicely complemented by the performances of hyper-cute animal lover Jones and Ford who convincingly combines understandable surliness and unhappiness with a credible conversion to the ideal son. Other performances are perfectly adequate in context and it says something for the whole cast that they not completely upstaged by sick tigers, cut peacock chicks, a depressed grizzly and the rest of the non-human inhabitants of the film.

Mary Poppins suggested a spoonful of sugar was sufficient. Crowe (whose last fiction film was Elizabethtown six years ago) rather appears to believe a sackful is better. That said, excellent family entertainment on its own determinedly charming and warm-hearted terms.

Alan Frank

USA 2011. UK Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox. Colour by deluxe.
123 minutes. Not widescreen. UK certificate: PG.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 0, Drugs 0, Swearing 0.

Review date: 12 Mar 2012