Cameron Crowe has wavered in his film success ever since 2001's Vanilla Sky (if you saw the original that it was remade from, Abre Los Ojos, you might understand the uproar). Following that, there was the atrocious Elizabethtown. Thus, it's no wonder Crowe has waited six years to release something new. He was carefully biding his time, waiting for the project that would restore his credibility. And it seems he has found it in this adaptation of Benjamin Mee's book about the zoo his family nurtured and reopened in Devon, England (though in the film, the location is changed to Southern California).
Benjamin's (Matt Damon) entire career has been based on the pursuit of adventure--experiencing it fully so that he could write about it accurately. After his wife, Katherine (Stephanie Szostak), dies of cancer, Benjamin is left in the uncomfortable position of being the sole caretaker of his children, seven-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, the cutest fucking kid ever) and fourteen-year-old Dylan (Colin Ford). Dylan, surly and irascible adolescent that he is, ends up getting expelled for stealing money from the school and drawing a mural of a decapitated head for his art class (schools can be so uptight sometimes).
In search of a new start and therefore a new place to live, Benjamin and Rosie are taken on a tour of houses, unimpressed with any of the properties until their real estate agent (J.B. Smoove, who, for some reason, speaks as though he has an impairment) shows them the Rosemoor property. When informed that the property requires the owner to take on all of the expenses of caring for the animals, Benjamin is less inclined to buy it--until he sees Rosie interacting with some of the birds. It's a little trite, but hey, Cameron Crowe is good at making trite work.
In addition to inheriting the animals that come with Rosemoor, Benjamin also inherits its employees, including an implausibly attractive zoologist named Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) and her 13-year-old cousin, Lily (Elle Fanning, who appears to have gone through several layers of puberty with each new role I see her in). As Kelly watches Benjamin put his entire being, finances and all, into getting the zoo ready for inspection by curmudgeonly bastard Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins), she starts to develop feelings for him, just as her cousin develops feelings for Benjamin's son. I'm sure you can guess how it all plays out from there.
While We Bought A Zoo is unapologetically schmaltzy at times, it is the first sign of Cameron Crowe's creative resuscitation. And so, I will ignore that, while it's a perfectly lovely "feel good movie," it lacks the same intrepidity of his best work--meaning Fast Times At Ridgemont High, Say Anything, Singles, and Almost Famous.