Review in a Hurry: Writer-director Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire) buys a zoo and let's Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson run it! Very much the kind of film that plays during the holiday season—although not directly linked to Christmas—the whole look and feel is warm, and sure, a bit overly sentimental. But the strong performances and Crowe's deft touch keep you invested, even if those that oppose the zoo will induce much rolling of the eyes.
The Bigger Picture: Based on the true story of Benjamin Mee (Damon), a recently widowed husband with two kids who leaves Los Angeles to purchase 18 acres that included a big house and the Rosemoor Animal Park. Crowe's films might vary in subject matter—a sports agent (Maguire), the rock era of the '70s (Almost Famous)—but nearly all are about people who undergo great change after a life crisis, and Zoo fits nicely into this theme.
We never find out what Ben's spouse died of, but it's pretty clear that Ben is now rudderless. Although lonely, he's got an ample supply of single moms baking him lasagna, offering to be with him because he's a nice guy and looks like Matt Damon. But his son (Colin Ford) has become a terror in school and his daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) while cute in that way that all movie kids are cute—saying oh-so-adorable things—needs more.
So off to the zoo they go. With Lions, and tigers and snakes!
There the Mees meet head zookeeper Kelly (Johansson) and her crew (including Almost Famous' Patrick Fugit and Super 8's Elle Fanning). In that great Crowe way, everyone wants the best for the park and with the opening coming up fast; everyone needs to buckle down.
Ben is easy to root for not only because of being recently widowed but because Damon excels at making all the small moments feel larger than life. The rest of the cast shines, especially Johansson, giving one of her strongest performances in years.
Most directors wouldn't attempt to converge a tale of a zoo and family turmoil since it can get cheesy real fast (and some of it does), but Crowe finds the right tone. Warm in a classic feel-good way but still raw and untamed, these folks aren't afraid to rassle up dozens of reptiles!
Plot-wise, everyone races to get the park up to code to pass the inspection of local tool Walter Ferris, played by John Michael Higgins (A Mighty Wind).
Here's where the film stumbles. Crowe has such a natural affinity for the sunny optimism of human nature that he can't really pull off antagonists. The part of the inspector and anyone else who aims to derail the zoo—like Ben's bratty son—feels forced.
What's perplexing is that none of that was needed. Ben's wife has died and there's the whole "he's never run a zoo before" conflict at work. So there's plenty of friction that's organic to the story. Only Thomas Hayden Church who plays Ben's older more cynical brother engages as a foil because Church is a naturally funny guy.
When the story focuses on what matters (and what's believable) Zoo, makes for an enjoyable movie to see while the relatives are in town.
The 180—a Second Opinion: We don't need to see Ben's dead wife, but we get plenty of flashback's of her that crosses the line into Lifetime drama.