There’s a reason some movies are released during the holiday season. There’s a certain kind of shallow, moderately pleasant entertainment that’s just right for the whole family. Not that the whole family will enjoy it, but they at least won’t be offended by it. Director Cameron Crowe’s (“Almost Famous”) “We Bought a Zoo” is one of these. It’s pleasant enough to watch, but presents nothing challenging, stimulating or original.

We Bought a Zoo

At Quality 16 and Rave
20th Century Fox


Matt Damon (“Contagion”) stars as Benjamin Mee, an adventure-addicted magazine writer with two kids who is mourning the death of his wife. After his son Dylan (Colin Ford, “Push”) is expelled from school, Benjamin decides it’s time to start over. On an impulse, he buys a dilapidated zoo in the countryside and decides to renovate it with his family and the zoo’s diminished but loyal staff.

Unfortunately, “We Bought a Zoo” offers no surprises. Within the first 20 minutes of the movie, each story and character arc has been neatly set up to be followed to its predictable conclusion. Benjamin will fall in love with the beautiful head zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson, “Iron Man 2”), Dylan will fall in love with the cute, young zoo employee Lily (Elle Fanning, “Super 8”) and the old, sick tiger whose life is only sustained by the medication Benjamin insists on giving him will become a metaphor for Benjamin’s own struggles dealing with his wife’s death. It’s all too easy, and we’ve seen it all before.

The story hinges on Benjamin’s goal of re-opening the zoo in a few short months. This turns out to be a nearly impossible task, and he comes up against various obstacles — his complete lack of knowledge of zoos, a strict inspector intent on Benjamin’s failure, fights with his son and his inability to recover from the trauma of his wife’s death. The problem is, the audience doesn’t feel what these characters are feeling. Since we’re a safe six months out from Benjamin’s wife’s death, we never feel the same sense of loss that affects him and his children. And the reasons for Benjamin’s quarrels with his son are never fully clear. The movie rabidly avoids intensity, preferring instead to simply amble along. It’s sort of funny, and sort of sad and sort of pretty, but not enough to really be captivating.

“We Bought a Zoo” also lacks subtlety. Characters deliver lines about being free and letting go, and you can almost see the filmmakers winking at you. The soundtrack, a glossy combination of pop hits and packaged inspiration, tells the audience just how to feel at all the right times. The cuteness of Benjamin’s daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, “Footloose”) is beaten over the audience’s head until she feels less like a character than a device to illicit sympathy. You would have to be unconscious to leave this movie feeling or thinking anything other than exactly what the filmmakers wanted you to think and feel.

Since the ending of the movie can be easily determined from the beginning, the film’s final third is bereft of tension. Instead of worrying about what will happen to these characters, the audience must simply gaze at their beautiful faces as they go about their pleasant work. The movie looks right, and has all the right moving parts, but a strong story never emerges from among the fine performances and the pretty images. In the end “We Bought a Zoo” is a vapid movie, a passable family film for the holidays, but one forgotten as soon as one leaves the theater.

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