Cameron Crowe is an odd match for “We Bought a Zoo.” The man known for directing R-rated fare like “Jerry Maguire” and “Almost Famous” seems out of his element with a cute-kids-and-animals movie.
That turns out to be a surprisingly good thing.
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Crowe brings the kind of warmth to this material that doesn’t suffocate. His smartest idea is casting Matt Damon as Benjamin Mee, a widower who buys a rundown private zoo to start a new life with his kids, sullen teenager Dylan (Colin Ford) and adorable 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones).
As he struggles to turn the zoo around and earn the respect of the skeptical staff, Benjamin gradually confronts his family’s grief.
Based loosely on a true story, “We Bought a Zoo” slips up on occasion, letting slapstick sentimentality undermine the low-key style. Crowe has a terrific facility with actors, however, and Damon is a perfect Crowe leading man. Benjamin is impulsive and a bit self-involved, but Damon is so charming, he easily demolishes any ill will his character might inspire.
He and Crowe aren’t afraid of difficult scenes, like the angry arguments between Benjamin and Dylan, and they play them with realism and compassion.
The supporting characters are a mixed bag. Thomas Haden Church brings his usual offbeat wit to the role of Benjamin’s brother, while Scarlett Johansson is largely wasted as a possible love interest (even Crowe doesn’t seem to think she belongs in the movie, as the romantic subplot gets pushed aside unceremoniously). The zoo employees and animals are amusing in the way of all good comedy sidekicks, funny without stealing too many scenes from the leads.
Without Crowe’s laid-back approach and Damon’s anchoring performance, “We Bought a Zoo” could have been a sappy disaster — think of a cross between “Zookeeper” and “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” and shudder. In this case, one of the least likely directors turned out to be the best possible choice.