- - Thursday, December 22, 2011

“We Bought a Zoo” is one of those movies that matches (or clashes with) with certain personality types. Animal lovers, inspiration seekers and people who are drawn to stories of renewal will warm to its charms. Cynics, cranks and cusses need not apply.

The movie tells the story of Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), an adventure writer who is recently widowed and charged with the care of his troubled 14-year-old son, Dylan (Colin Ford), and his precociously wise 7-year old daughter, Rosie. Family life in their Los Angeles suburb is becoming increasingly hard to manage. While Benjamin is not interested in the amorous attentions of the mothers at Rosie’s schools — or in the pre-baked lasagnas they woo him with — he is finding solo fatherhood a bit of a challenge. His son is using his talent for drawing to create ghoulish images that alarm school administrators and eventually get him expelled.

Benjamin doesn’t just want a new home for his children, he yearns for a whole new existence, away from the memories of his late wife and their shared history. He finds it in a rustic house in the country, miles away from the nearest grocery store. The catch is that to buy the house, he must also acquire the Rosemoor Animal Park — a zoo complete with lions, tigers, bears and more. In so doing, he takes on the challenge of upgrading the shuttered zoo, bringing it up to code, and making sure that its skeleton crew of zookeepers and staff can get paid.

Slowly but surely, the zoo staff, led by head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) begin to believe that Benjamin is serious about reopening the zoo, and making a living at running it. In a cute side story, Dylan and Kelly’s young cousin Lily (Elle Fanning) hit it off. While the inexperienced Lily wears her heart on her sleeve, the more world-weary Dylan has learned how to keep himself wrapped up tight enough to seem mysterious and alluring, while not really giving anything of himself. This budding (and quaintly innocent) relationship is emblematic of the values of the movie: Emotional forthrightness is effective; playing it cool is self-defeating. As Benjamin’s skeptical but supportive brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church) says, “Sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage.”

Perhaps because it’s based on a true story — though the real zoo is called Dartmoor, and is in the southwest of England — the movie takes a procedural approach. There is the requisite acclimation phase, the preparation for ritual inspection and the question of whether the family has the money to pull it off. But surprisingly, very little of this feels forced or formulaic. Director Cameron Crowe brings a gentleness and sensitivity to the pacing that allows the story to blossom in a way that feels authentic.

It’s a tricky thing to depict the healing of the human heart, and “We Bought a Zoo” does a pretty good job of getting it right.

★ ★ ★ (out of four)

TITLE: “We Bought a Zoo”

CREDITS: Directed by Cameron Crowe; screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna and Cameron Crowe, based on the book by Benjamin Mee.

RATING: PG for a couple of expletives uttered in the heat of anger

RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes

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