Director Cameron Crowe's adaptation of Benjamin Mee's book, We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Broken-Down Zoo, and the 200 Animals That Changed a Family Forever, is a sentimental affair with a storyline for every member of the family.
Mee was a British journalist who decided his family needed a change, so he bought a run-down zoo in the English countryside which included 200-odd exotic species. His story chronicles the challenge of getting the zoo up and running as a family business, and the tragic death of his wife from a brain tumour.
Screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna and Crowe, who rewrote the script, stick relatively close to the original version of events, although thankfully they've shortened the title, and Americanised it by moving Mee's story to Southern California.
Desperate for a fresh start and an adventure for his kids, 14-year-old Dylan (Colin Ford) and adorable 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), Benjamin buys Rosemoor Animal Park. It's not long before it becomes clear he's woefully out of his depth. A lack of experience, animals on the loose, an unusual collection of employees and other misadventures provide humour, balanced by the poignancy of a grieving family.
Damon is perfectly cast as Mee. He's happy to play the fool, copes well with the more twee occasions, and is solid enough to play a man trying to hold his family together. Scarlett Johansson, as the head zoo-keeper, makes the right call by doing this film makeup-less and there's a nice chemistry between her and Damon, although convincing us she's really a zookeeper is still a stretch.
We Bought a Zoo is an emotionally manipulative film, with a few too many reflective and tear-jerking moments as Mee flicks through photos of his wife, or hugs an old sweater. What helps elevate it out of a sappy Hallmark territory, is a soundtrack by Sigur Ros frontman Jon Thor Birgisson (aka Jonsi) that is genuinely emotive and tasteful.
We Bought a Zoo won't change your life, but it will provide two hours of lovely, slightly whimsical escapism.
Cast: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson
Director: Cameron Crowe
Running time: 124 mins
Rating: PG (Coarse language)
Verdict: Sweet, feel-good but hardly memorable