Inexplicably stuck in the middle of this menagerie of cliches is Matt Damon, who is much too good an actor to be wasting time on such drivel. In the space of a year he’s gone from headlining in something as marvelous as “True Grit” to starring in this garbage.
Sounds like it possesses all the fixings for a Disney cartoon, except not one of the characters – animal or human – comes close to being animated. They’re as lifeless as a script by Aline Brosh McKenna (“The Devil Wears Prada,” “27 Dresses”) that relies on a menagerie of cliches in telling the semi-true story about a recently widowed newspaper columnist who quits his job and hauls off with his two kids to buy a rundown zoo staffed by an array of stock Hollywood characters. Let the restorations commence.
As the high-concept title suggests, “We Bought a Zoo” is unapologetically literal in its approach, leaving no room for nuance or irony. What you expect to see is exactly what you get, cutting out all possibilities of surprise or dramatic heft. The closest it comes to any sort of conflict is a shrill screaming match between Matt Damon’s normally unflappable Benjamin Mee and his spoiled-brat son, Dylan (Colin Ford), over how best to handle the family’s lingering grief.
The rest is just a lot of tree-hugging psychobabble, dealing in such profound nuggets as “20 seconds of courage yield something great.” Too bad McKenna didn’t heed her own adage because there’s nothing daring flowing from her keyboard, unless you count Benjamin’s stare-down with an escaped grizzly bear named Buster.
The rest is just a plethora of manipulations intent on eliciting “awe shucks” moments, most of them emanating from Mee’s annoyingly “adorable” 7-year-old daughter, the aptly named Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), who never fails to obey Crowe’s command to mug for the cameras. We’re also fed not-so-subtle hints of a romance brewing between Mee and his impossibly beautiful resident zookeeper, Kelly. She’s played by the gorgeous Scarlett Johansson, who is provided little to do beyond lifting her amazing cheekbones to smile approvingly at her new boss, as he begins to master the everyday ins and outs of operating a zoo.
If the Damon-Johansson demographic skews too old for you, there’s also a budding tween romance between 14-year-old Dylan, the most wholesome Goth artist the movies have ever seen, and Kelly’s 13-year-old niece, Lily (Elle Fanning), who makes a mockery of child labor laws by slaving away on Benjamin’s private zoo.
At least the two female zoo workers have more to do than their male counterparts played by Angus Macfadyen, doing his best impersonation of “Harry Potter’s” cranky Hagrid, and all-grown-up “Almost Famous” alum Patrick Fugit aping Ross from “Friends,” complete with capuchin monkey on his shoulder. Equally unnecessary are characters portrayed by Thomas Haden Church as Benjamin’s doubting-Thomas brother, Duncan, and John Michael Higgins as Ferris, a surly (and allegedly comical) zoo inspector whose favor the gang must win in order to open their menagerie in time for tourist season.
Inexplicably stuck in the middle of all this is Damon, who is much too good an actor to be wasting time on such drivel. In the space of a year he’s gone from headlining in something as marvelous as “True Grit” to starring in this garbage.
What he doesn’t do is make his tale of a family – and a zoo’s – redemption very interesting. He’s too busy shilling for Target, a retailer that we’re repeatedly reminded is nine miles from the zoo. All that’s missing is the little terrier with the red target painted around his eye. Perhaps the mutt’s agent advised him against being in ithe movie. Too bad the agents for the rest of the actors didn’t do the same.
WE BOUGHT A ZOO (PG for for language and some thematic elements). Cast includes Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Elle Fanning and Angus Macfadyen. Directed by Cameron Crowe. 2 stars out of 4.