In the furry and feathery world of “We Bought a Zoo,” starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, basically everything in sight is in need of saving. Thankfully, it has filmmaker Cameron Crowe heading the rescue mission.
In lesser hands, a film so unashamed of its sentiment, so affectionate about its characters, so uplifting in its message would have landed in the maw of mushy that so often devours films like these. Instead we have an intelligent family film, a rarity, and while not quite Crowe at his absolute best, it carries his humanistic imprint and benefits from a strong acting ensemble that keep emotions in check.
Loosely based on a true story, the film follows the saga of single dad Benjamin Mee (Damon), whose solution to his family’s woes comes from unexpected quarters. When looking for a new start for 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and his boundary-testing, button-pushing teenager Dylan (Colin Ford), he stumbles across a crumbling country house that comes with a zoo, broken down in ways that echo his own fractured life.
The film’s twist is served up in the title, the big-ticket item of the Rosemoor Animal Park, renamed from Mee’s original and moved from Britain to Crowe’s stomping ground of Southern California. Otherwise the screenplay, adapted by Aline Brosh McKenna and Crowe from Mee’s book, follows along a pretty predictable path — there are obstacles to overcome and in the process family ties are tested. After a brief setup, the film dives right into the disastrous state of things at the zoo. Bringing things up to standard seems impossible; so is giving up. Even the truculent Dylan finds it hard to resist the animal magnetism of the lions and tigers and bears.
Besides Mee, a former newspaper columnist who is clearly in over his head, the crew undertaking desperate measures is an affable bunch anchored by Kelly (an apple-crisp Johansson), the no-nonsense head zookeeper/animal advocate, and her winsome teenage cousin Lily (“Super 8’s” super Elle Fanning). John Michael Higgins turns up as Walter Ferris, the futzy inspector bent on shutting things down. So fabulous with the Shih Tzus in Christopher Guest’s “Best in Show,” the actor is meant to be in charge of comic relief. But he isn’t given much in the thin reed of Walter, who seems destined to be outsmarted.
Where Ben and Rosie see a great adventure in the zoo life, Ben’s more pragmatic brother Duncan (a nicely grouchy Thomas Haden Church) sees a money pit. Both are right. But this is a minor squabble. The most formidable conflict comes from 14-year-old Duncan. He feels unfairly exiled from his friends and his growing feelings for the free-spirited Lily only confuse him.
It’s a bit over 2 hours, but the director keeps a brisk pace. Though he takes time when it’s called for, digging into Duncan’s isolation and the father-son friction, with Damon and Ford mining the frustration and affection typical of the teenage years to good effect. That the much-loved wife and mother is no longer there to run interference between them makes the stakes higher and the hurts cut deeper.
On the flip side, it’s great watching Damon with Jones, who makes Rosie all about sunshine and flowers. There is such a sweetness when they are together that it’s easy to believe someone would buy her a zoo, which thanks to cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, Oscar-nominated for “Brokeback Mountain,” looks to be a pretty idyllic spot. Meanwhile, Damon and Johansson do nice work keeping Ben and Kelly focused on fixing things, rather than flirtatious, which would have been the more typical way to go.
And then there is the music, long a signature element in Crowe’s work. For “Zoo,” it is as eclectic, mood-altering and appealing as anything else about the film with Iceland’s Jónsi in charge of creating that sound. The ethereal, lyrical rocker, probably best known as the lead musician in Sigur Rós, composed several of the songs as well.
This seems to be the year for passion projects for the director. His energetic documentary “Pearl Jam Twenty” indulged his love of rock music, and now “Zoo” celebrates his love of family. Though neither movie reaches the level of Crowe’s standout films — the autobiographical intimacy he achieved in 2000’s “Almost Famous,” which earned him a screenwriting Oscar, or the what-makes-Sammy-run electricity of 1996’s “Jerry Maguire” — “Zoo” is definitely one from the heart.