Susan Granger's review of 'We Bought a Zoo'
Six months after his wife's death, adventure-writer Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is having trouble coping with his truculent 14 year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford), who's been expelled from school not only for drawing grotesque pictures that illustrate his disturbed psyche but also for stealing. While predatory single moms his refrigerator filled with homemade lasagna, Benjamin's precociously adorable seven year-old daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) spends far too much time just being sad.
So it's time to leave suburban Los Angeles and move somewhere new - like a picturesque, if crumbling old farmhouse `way out in the country. It's part of the now-defunct Rossmoor Animal Park, which comes with a menagerie of 200 animals, some endangered - including several tigers, a grizzly bear and lion - as well as their devoted, if eccentric keepers. Headed by hard-working, no-nonsense Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), who is highly skeptical about the arrival of widower Benjamin and his children, the staff also includes Kelly's naïve, free-spirited teenage cousin Lily (Elle Fanning), ill-tempered Peter MacCready (Angus Macfayden), and amiable Robin Jones (Patrick Fugit), who keeps a capuchin monkey perched on his shoulder.
Despite repeated warnings from his pragmatic accountant/older brother, Duncan (Thomas Hayden Church), Benjamin is determined to repair and reopen the wildlife preserve by July 4th, but that can't happen until it passes inspection by Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins), a finicky federal official.
Based on British journalist Benjamin Mee's memoir, "We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Broken-Down Zoo, and the 200 Animals That Changed a Family Forever," which was set in England, it's been simplistically adapted and transplanted to Southern California by Aline Brosh McKenna ("The Devil Wears Prada," "Morning Glory," "27 Dresses") and writer/director Cameron Crowe ("Say Anything," "Jerry Maguire"), who has always been attracted to melodramatic, somewhat melancholy stories about love and longing. Charming Matt Damon acquits himself admirably, particularly with scene-stealing Maggie Elizabeth Jones.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "We Bought a Zoo" is an affectionate, amusing 7. It's uplifting, feel-good family entertainment.