Matt Damon once again proves he’s one of Hollywood’s most versatile actors

A lack of animal magnetism

The elephant in the room in Cameron Crowe’s family-friendly We Bought a Zoo is that there’s very little substance to this sentimental comedy-drama starring Matt Damon as a single dad who buys a fixer-upper country house in California, which happens to come with its own menagerie.

We Bought a Zoo

2 and 1/2 stars(out of 4)

Rated: PG

The elephant in the room in Cameron Crowe’s family-friendly We Bought a Zoo is that there’s very little substance to this sentimental comedy-drama starring Matt Damon as a single dad who buys a fixer-upper country house in California, which happens to come with its own menagerie.

Damon does all the heavy lifting here as widower Benjamin Mee, assisted by his philosophical older brother (Thomas Haden Church) and cutie-pie daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), a beguiling pint-size moppet who conjures up thoughts of Zuzu Bailey weeping over her shedding rose in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Based on the true story of Briton Benjamin Mee, who wrote about his family’s exploits in a 2008 memoir, this marks Crowe’s first try at an all-ages film.

Fans of his other — and better — movies like Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous and Say Anything won’t add this to their list of Crowe hits.

A filmmaker who could previously be counted on to get us to a personal place with characters amid sharp lines and wry humour (Elizabethtown excluded), he comes up short in We Bought a Zoo, where the players are painted with broad strokes and kept behind barriers, just like the critters.

After the death of his wife, Benjamin finds himself floundering as a parent, unable to run the household or get through to his teen son, Dylan (Colin Ford), who acts out his grief by drawing graphic horror scenes.

Meanwhile, circling neighbourhood females who want to help Benjamin get over his loss won’t leave him alone. He’s stuck in a rut and the solution seems to be to ditch his newspaper job (hey, who needs work when you have family and a dream?), buy a new house and make a fresh start with Dylan and Rosie.

The dilapidated zoo on the property Benjamin falls for comes complete with an attractive zookeeper named Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), a no-nonsense gal who lives to serve her animal charges. That’s hardly an easy task: there are 200 of them, including an aging tiger, a depressed bear and a mess of snakes who leave Dylan rattled.

They all have to pull together to get the zoo in shape to pass pre-opening inspection. Easier said than done for Benjamin, who has little more than boundless enthusiasm going for him.

While he tries to get the zoo on track, Dylan finds a new friend in Kelly’s delightfully quirky niece Lily (lovely Elle Fanning, whose character could use more screen time).

Various roadblocks, figurative and literal, are overcome in an obvious fashion in this predictable story, which is occasionally enlivened with rock fan Crowe’s choice of musical accompaniment.

But through it all, Damon shows there’s little he can’t do onscreen. He is completely likable as the Walter Mitty-like Benjamin.

The final third of We Bought a Zoo gets to the heart of the hurt in everyone’s life and Crowe manages to break free of the corniness of the piece to inject some genuine emotion.

The movie also fails to give voice to the inevitable protest that would rise in any community — especially California — about opening a zoo in these animal-aware times. The sight of flying kites filling the sky on opening day will make those who champion animal welfare grow pale.

What it lacks in animal magnetism, We Bought a Zoo makes up for in some ways, but it’s not enough to elevate this beyond an average movie that’s clearly been crafted to bring holiday families together over the popcorn machine.

Linda Barnard is a syndicated movie critic for the Toronto Star.

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