Cameron Crowe has never been one to hold back on emotion, and We Bought a Zoo, the writer-director’s first narrative feature since 2005’s Elizabethtown, is about as unabashedly emotional as movies get. It’s based loosely on a memoir by Benjamin Mee, who actually did, along with his family, buy a run-down zoo and turn its fortunes around. The film’s Benjamin (Matt Damon) is a journalist who specializes in writing about extreme adventures, and he looks at the dilapidated animal park as the greatest adventure of all, one that will help him and his two kids, sullen teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford) and über-cute daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), move past the recent death of their mother.
The story arc once the Mees get to the zoo is predictable, as they scramble to get the place in perfect shape in time for a pre-opening inspection. The zoo is staffed by a motley crew of animal lovers, including a fetching head zookeeper (Scarlett Johansson) who takes an interest in Benjamin.
Crowe’s greatest strength is in taking these potentially cloying elements and making them feel human and comforting rather than contrived and sappy. The movie deals with grief in a mostly understated way, and Crowe is still great at combining images and music to evoke just the right feeling of longing. Zoo’s feel-good moments are so drenched in beauty that they transcend their corniness. Crowe drags out the story a little too long, and he nearly runs out of goodwill toward the end. But overall Zoo is heartwarming in the best way; its pleasures are small but completely genuine.