We Bought a Zoo is Hollywood’s answer to the question, What would happen if we gave one of those big, dumb, broad family comedies to people with talent? It’s really just director Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous), dignified leading man Matt Damon (Dogma, Hereafter), and ace cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (The 25th Hour, Brokeback Mountain, Babel) teaming up to try and make families weep on Christmas day. Impossible not to compare with the much less convincing Marley and Me, Zoo is likewise an adaptation of a true-to-life book by a journalist who took a life-changing risk that, quite inspirationally, paid off. The movie looks like the work of successful middle-aged industry types who’ve given up on making challenging work and are proud of it, because what’s so wrong with making movies for their kids?
Matt Damon has kids, and so does Benjamin Mee, the actual journalist who Damon plays in this film. Mee righteously kissed off a job chasing the big scoops for The Los Angeles Times in order to give his kids a fresh start after the sudden death of their mother. A new start has got to mean something big for an adventurous guy like Mee, who’s spent his adult life (or maybe just the opening montage of this movie) trotting the globe in pursuit of dictators and death-defying calamities. In the end, ‘something big’ does indeed involve the purchase of an animal place, along with the quaint, rustic, child-friendly farmhouse it’s attached to.
Nothing about We Bought a Zoo sounds any less than unrepentantly schmaltzy, so for anyone not looking to take their kids to something simple and harmless during the holidays, the reasonable response would be to steer clear. Except that Cameron Crowe has always been America’s savior of schmaltz, a guy who can turn a cringe-inducing premise into something watchable, even good. That’s what he loves, and We Bought a Zoo can’t rightly be called a digression from the best of his work. It’s a solid film, built around a believably grieving family and a zoo that seems to function the way a real zoo actually might. Beyond it’s unrestrained saccharinity, the worst that can be said is that it at times loses momentum, that some of its cheese stretches too thin, or that occasionally its scenes — specifically, the ones featuring Thomas Hayden Church as Damon’s wise-cracking older brother — are overplayed. But really, if you throw It’s a Wonderful Life out of the equation, there are very few ardently simplistic live-action dramedies made with this much care.