Crowe's best feature since Almost Famous, We Bought a Zoo is based on the true story of Benjamin Mee, a former Guardian columnist who took over Dartmouth Wildlife Park as a going concern. He and his inexperienced family have a made a success of it since it reopened in 2007 as Dartmouth Zoological Park.
The film moves the story to California with Damon playing Mee as a grieving widower who quits his job at a newspaper and buys the zoo to give himself and his teenage son (Ford) and young daughter (Jones) a new life. At first, the staff at the zoo don't take kindly to the new owners. Head keeper Kelly (Johansson) is determined to have the place ready for its reopening – despite the nitpicking of fussy inspector Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins) – and thinkns that the new owners are just getting in the way. She does, though, eventually soften and develop geniune feelings for the widower, while home-schooled teen Lily (Fanning) falls for Mee's rebellious son Dylan (Ford).
It's often sentimental and conventional, but for the most part We Bought a Zoo is an enjoyable watch. There are a few cliches – Macfadyen as a sozzled Scott, and Fugit walks around with a monkey on his shoulder – but kids will find all the animals delightful and the cast all work hard. Despite the early tone of a family coming to terms with the death of a wife and mother, it's s a light film for the most part, though Damon and Ford do share a very good scene together, arguing as father and son about how they both feel mistreated by the other.
Don't expect an action-packed, suspenseful adventure film, because you'll be well disappiointed. We Bought a Zoo is a warm and inspiring family drama that once again shows what a fine actor Damon has become.
EXTRAS ★½ Just the feaurette It's a Zoo (23:25), in whihc the cast, crew and trainers talk about what it was like working with the animals.