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Show Me the Monkey

We Bought a Zoo (2011)

Neal Preston/20th Century Fox

With “We Bought a Zoo,” Cameron Crowe has more or less remade “Jerry Maguire” with cuddly wuddly animals in place of memorable one-liners. The new film is about that same foolhardy idealism that drives a man to stake everything he has.

Although based on a true story, the film has inexplicably transported the Dartmoor Zoological Park from the county of Devon in southwest England to southern California. After his son Dylan (Colin Ford) is expelled from school for various antisocial transgressions, widower Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) decides it’s time for a change of scenery. So he quits his job at the Los Angeles Times and squanders an inheritance on a decrepit countryside zoo. While Mr. Crowe and co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna have preserved many details in the trans-Atlantic migration, they are seemingly oblivious to the fact that real-life Mr. Mee’s former employer, the Guardian, has just launched an American edition.

Benjamin has the head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) at hello, likewise for city mouse Dylan and his country counterpart Lily (Elle Fanning). Anyway, the movie is curiously episodic, perhaps because it originates from the BBC Two reality show “Ben’s Zoo.” The narrative constantly shifts its focus — from the expository death in the family to the various improvement projects, to the near depletion of cash, to the impending visit by an overzealous Agriculture Department inspector (John Michael Higgins), to the cathartic father-son showdown, to the Home Depot product placement. Let’s not forget Benjamin’s cute-as-a-button daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and her furry and feathered friends: Lion! Tiger! Bear! Zebra! Peacock! And so on.

One lingering concern for Benjamin is whether he’ll be able to recoup his investment, but the outcome is as obvious as that of Kevin Costner building a baseball diamond in the midst of a cornfield. “We Bought a Zoo” is just as you’d expect and nothing more. Which is a real shame, because it misses a perfect opportunity for cultural commentary. In simpler times, a visit to the zoo was a treat. But the wonders of nature have been thoroughly supplanted by Wii, Xbox, PlayStation and the Internet, probably thanks to lazy parenting. Since “We Bought a Zoo” doesn’t have much on offer, it could and should have at least been a more pointed reminder for us to rediscover nature and support local zoos.


Opens on Dec. 23 in the United States and on March 16, 2012 in the United Kingdom.

Directed by Cameron Crowe; written by Aline Brosh McKenna and Mr. Crowe, based on the book by Benjamin Mee; director of photography, Rodrigo Prieto; edited by Mark Livolsi; music by Jónsi; production design by Clay Griffith; costumes by Doborah L. Scott; produced by Julie Yorn, Mr. Crowe and Rick Yorn; released by 20th Century Fox. Running time: 2 hours 4 minutes. This film is rated PG.

WITH: Matt Damon (Benjamin Mee), Scarlett Johansson (Kelly Foster), Thomas Haden Church (Duncan Mee), Patrick Fugit (Robin Jones), Colin Ford (Dylan Mee), Elle Fanning (Lily Miska), Maggie Elizabeth Jones (Rosie Mee), John Michael Higgins (Walter Ferris), Angus Macfadyen (Peter MacCready), Peter Riegert (Delbert McGinty), Stephanie Szostak (Katherine Mee) and J. B. Smoove (Mr. Stevens).


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