“We Bought a Zoo” is an odd bird, warm-blooded but largely lifeless. Adapted from Benjamin Mee’s autobiographical account of his experiences as the new owner of a fixer-upper menagerie, Cameron Crowe’s overlong pic works hard to deliver intermittent pleasures, most of which derive from Matt Damon’s affable lead turn. Animal action, as well as comedy of any variety, remains curiously sparse as Crowe strains to make a tribe of his human characters, including a ragtag zoo-keeping team and the widowed Mee’s two kids. Sneaked nearly a month in advance, Fox’s holiday offering lacks the zip needed to drive upbeat word of mouth.
Though faithful to Mee’s book in many respects, Crowe’s “Zoo” shifts the setting from the British countryside to Southern California, and starts with Mee’s wife, Katherine, having already died from illness (she’s played in flashbacks by Stephanie Szostak). Like the soul-seeking protags of Crowe pics past, Damon’s grieving Mee decides early in the film to turn his life upside down, abruptly quitting his job as an L.A. newspaper journo and moving himself and his kids — teenage Dylan (Colin Ford) and 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) — to a rural property whose 18 acres include the Rosemoor Animal Park.
Shuttered years ago, but still home to members of several dozen endangered species, Rosemoor is run by the twentysomething Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), a workaholic animal lover who’s skeptical of Mee’s intentions until he opens his pocketbook and proves his concern for the likes of Buster, a 650-pound grizzly bear, and Spar, an aged and ailing tiger. Mee also has to deal with his own brood, particularly Dylan, whose bereavement takes the form of stubborn apathy for all but his own ornately grotesque drawings.
Where Crowe’s classics, “Say Anything” (1989) and “Jerry Maguire” (1996), work their magic in no small part through indelible supporting characters, “Zoo” is an altogether messier affair. Among an ensemble that never quite coheres are Kelly’s teen cousin Lily (Elle Fanning), who flirts with Dylan; Robin (Patrick Fugit, who played Crowe’s alter ego in “Almost Famous”), who keeps a capuchin monkey on his shoulder; MacCready (Angus MacFadyen), who drinks hard and has a bad temper; and Mee’s accountant brother, Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), who shows up every now and then to wag a finger at his impractical sibling.
Crowe, who co-wrote the screenplay with Aline Brosh McKenna, clearly wishes to celebrate the group’s tireless efforts to reopen the park, but only Damon, convincing and likable throughout, has been given enough to do. As played sweetly by Jones, young Rosie is just another implausibly precocious pre-tween who, like Johansson’s underwritten Kelly, exists largely to smile approvingly at the hero. The animals’ reaction shots appear somewhat more nuanced, though, believe it or not, “Zoo” manages to shortchange its non-human performers as well.
Per usual for a Crowe film, the soundtrack comes stuffed with goodies, although the mix of Neil Young, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan, among many others, lacks the moments of musical epiphany in the director’s signature works. The score by Jonsi of Sigur Ros sounds a touch saccharine and doesn’t mesh well with the vintage pop.
Tech credits, with the exception of the shapeless cutting, are solid but hardly vivid enough to compensate for the pic’s deficiencies.