The story structure of Cameron Crowe’s We Bought A Zoo seems to be; establish a goal, establish the means of reaching that goal, place an obstacle in the way, have our protagonist overcome that obstacle either through a personal revelation or by inspiring others with a big speech while a piece of rock music from the ‘60s or ‘70s directly comments on the action, repeat with the obstacles all the way until the bitter end. I have no problem with complications upon complications, in Apollo 13 (1995), for example, it’s part of the fun, but as handled by Crowe in We Bought A Zoo it becomes repetitive quickly.
Matt Damon stars as Benjamin Mee, who, yes, buys a zoo as a way to bring his family together after the death of his wife. He is not an expert on large animals or running a business, he was a reporter. With the help of his zookeeper (Scarlet Johansson) he has only a few months to refurbish the park before running out of money, get the place approved by the zoo inspector, show his son how to be a man, let go of his grief over his wife’s death, and make the enterprise a financial success. There are good parts of this movie, which is at heart a light comedy, but Crowe always rides a thin line between sharp truth and insufferable saccharine and he spends too much time on the sugary side of that line.
Crowe, who also co-wrote the script, doesn’t have the ear he used in Almost Famous (2000) or Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), the dialogue is more like low-rent Aaron Sorkin, where characters trade mini-speeches that sound far too polished to be actually extemporaneous. In fact, TV would be a good place for We Bought A Zoo. And the choice of soundtrack does become overbearing, I’m surprised the movie isn’t called At The Zoo so they could use the Simon and Garfunkel song.
There is also a tone issue. In moments with the animals and certainly with the entire subplot with the zoo inspector, the movie makes a move to broad slapstick that undercuts the family drama, but then it pulls punches with the relationship between Benjamin and his seriously grieving teenage son, furthermore, the romantic pairing of Damon and Johansson seems tacked on and isn’t fully committed to. It’s hard to object too much to We Bought A Zoo because the performances are all very good and it does provide enough emotion and payoff that you actually feel good at the end, provided you don’t think too much about it.