If your favorite descriptive word for a movie is “edgy,” you might want to skip this one. If, however, you like heartwarming—not cloying—stories about decent people, and hope to leave the theater feeling better than you did when you walked in, We Bought a Zoo will be a welcome cup of holiday cheer. Rated PG, it is intended to please a family audience, so the timing is perfect.
Cynics may call it predictable, but that’s only partly true. You can tell from the start that the story will have a happy ending, and that the damaged characters will be made whole. But this film is more about the journey than the destination, and in the hands of director Cameron Crowe (working from a screenplay he wrote with Aline Brosh McKenna, from Benjamin Mee’s memoir) it offers considerable pleasure along the way.
Matt Damon is well cast as a widower who after six months is still having a hard time dealing with the loss of his wife, which has left him as sole parent of a troubled 14-year-old son and an adorable 7-year-old daughter. Haunted by memories of his wife wherever he goes, he decides that the family needs to start anew, and house-hunting leads him to a beautiful plot of land that’s home to an abandoned animal park. To his daughter’s delight and his son’s dismay, he buys the property and takes on the daunting responsibility of fixing up the zoo and dealing with its many challenges—alongside a small but dedicated staff, led by Scarlett Johansson.
The supporting cast includes Thomas Haden Church, as Damon’s loving but smart-mouthed brother, Elle Fanning, as a sweet, homeschooled girl who develops a crush on Damon’s son, Patrick Fugit (the memorable protagonist of Crowe’s Almost Famous) as one of the zookeepers, John Michael Higgins, as an intimidating state inspector, and J.B. Smoove, as a colorful realtor who leads Damon to his new home. Some of these players are archetypes as much as characters, but they serve their purpose. More important, the actors who play Damon’s kids, Colin Ford and Maggie Elizabeth Jones, are completely believable.
How often do we get to see a movie in which a loving family, faced with challenges, finds a way to reconnect and grow stronger? This may not be considered cutting-edge storytelling, but I can’t think of anything more relevant or worthwhile