If there’s one element that unites Cameron Crowe movies—apart from soundtracks featuring the Rolling Stone writer-turned-director’s favorite bands—it’s sincerity. Crowe’s heart-on-sleeve approach to filmmaking has helped make even his lesser efforts memorable, or at least tough to dislike. When Crowe’s films work, they play like valentines to love, companionship, integrity, music, and everything else that makes life worth living. And when they don’t, well, he clearly meant well. Formula, however, is the enemy of sincerity, and in We Bought A Zoo, the two engage in a film-long struggle. Adapted from Benjamin Mee’s book of the same name that chronicled his family’s decision to take over England’s struggling Dartmoor Wildlife Park, We Bought A Zoo tries to fuse the story of a grieving family’s attempts to cope with a devastating loss with a broad, crowd-pleasing family comedy involving drunken zookeepers, winsome kids, cute animals, and persnickety inspectors. It’s an odd, unsatisfying combination that moves from mopey drama one moment to a reaction shot of a monkey smacking his forehead in exasperation the next. By the end of the film, viewers might understand the monkey’s feelings all too well.
Transplanting the action to Southern California, the film casts Matt Damon as Mee, a successful writer struggling to raise a surly teen son (Colin Ford) and a sunny 7-year-old daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) after his wife’s death. Wanting a break from the familiar, and needing to get Ford into another school after his expulsion for bad behavior, Damon purchases a house that happens to have a dilapidated wildlife park in its backyard. With only a skeleton crew headed by a tough-talking Scarlett Johansson, Damon decides to get the zoo up to code, pouring his life savings into it despite having no idea what he’s doing.
Both Crowe and his cast have a hard time finding their footing. Despite a healthy number of big, dramatic scenes, Damon’s character never really comes to life, and the kids end up feeling like clichés. Crowe has a long history of writing memorable parts for young actors, but Jones is a stock moppet, and Ford’s misfit could have stepped in from an ABC Family Original Movie. (Elle Fanning has slightly better luck as a pixieish girl who charges herself with making Ford’s life better, a device Crowe has used better elsewhere.) Even the zoo seems underdeveloped, never coming alive as a place. That Crowe focuses most of the animal action on an aged tiger Damon remains determined to save against the odds—a tiger ravaged by the effects of Forced Metaphor Syndrome—doesn’t help. (Also not helping: the many conspicuously shoehorned-in references to a pair of big-box stores.) Crowe lets some hints of his personality slip through the contrivances here and there, but there’s not a Bob Dylan song in existence, no matter how carefully placed, that could give We Bought A Zoo the illusion of depth.