We Bought a Zoo (2011)

[7.0]

Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire) directs this family drama/comedy about a widower, played by Matt Damon, who buys a rural home that comes with a rundown zoo. Damon and his two young children help the ragtag team of zoo keepers, led by Scarlett Johansson, to bring the zoo up to code so that it can re-open to the public — and along the way, the broken family has a catharsis coming to terms with the loss of its matriarch.

In lesser hands, this is the kind of family flick that would fall into cloying sentimentality. But Cameron Crowe is a little more discerning than that, focusing squarely on the family drama and never letting the animals upstage the actors. Damon and Colin Ford, playing the son, provide the emotional backbone of the movie. Both actors are very good depicting a relationship where mutual affection is masked by defensive posturing. Johansson gets a few good moments arguing with Damon. Supporting actors Thomas Hayden Church and Angus Macfadyen are well-placed in comedic relief, while young Elle Fanning plays a possible love interest for Colin Ford’s character.

I bought into We Bought a Zoo, hook, line, and sinker. The family drama was compelling, and I even became invested in seeing the zoo re-open. I also enjoyed how sensitively Crowe handles a subplot involving an aged Bengal tiger nearing the end of its life. I know family dramas are a tough sell to jaded film fans, but this one, based on a true story, is surprisingly grounded.

With Patrick Fugit and Maggie Elizabeth Jones.