After his wife dies, Benjamin (Damon) is struggling to keep his kids - 14-year-old Dylan (Ford) and 7-year-old Rosie(Jones) - happy, mainly because he has lost the daredevil storyteller within himself. So against the advice of his goofy-but-sensible brother (Church), Benjamin buys a run-down zoo and moves there with his children to get it up and running again. Zookeeper Kelly (Johansson) and her team (including Macfadyen and Fugit) don't think he'll stick it out. And indeed, it's more of a challenge than he ever imagined.
The narrative tries to work on a variety of layers, but each one is so predictable it's impossible to develop any interest in what might happen. Kelly is clearly interested in Benjamin, and her 13-year-old cousin (Fanning) is likewise attracted to Dylan, so we have two mini-romances bubbling along.
There's a snooty inspector (the scene-stealing Higgins) who has a personal vendetta against this particular zoo. The lion's looking restless, the star tiger is dying and the bear is trying to escape. The weather doesn't even cooperate.
The problem is that, while all of this might be part of the true story the film's based on, it's assembled in the blandest way imaginable. There's no central thrust, as we just watch the characters and animals swirl around in a flurry of smiley cuteness. Even the killer animals don't seem to have real teeth. Although at least there's the odd moment of honesty along the way. And the actors are engaging, adorable or funny as required, but only Johansson has any bite.
In the end, Crowe tries to make the film about something altogether different, as he begins to wallow increasingly in a sentimentalised exploration of the grief Benjamin and his children are trying to adjust to. But since this is never explored with any real depth, the film begins to feel glib and overwrought, missing the point mainly because Crowe couldn't settle on just one point.
Run time: 124 mins
In Theaters: Friday 23rd December 2011
Box Office USA: $75.6M
Box Office Worldwide: $120.1M
Distributed by: 20th Century Fox
Production compaines: Dune Entertainment, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, LBI Entertainment, Vinyl Films
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 66%
Fresh: 101 Rotten: 52
IMDB: 7.1 / 10
Director: Cameron Crowe
Producer: Julie Yorn
Starring: Matt Damon as Benjamin Mee, Scarlett Johansson as Kelly Foster, Thomas Haden Church as Duncan Mee, Colin Ford as Dylan Mee, Maggie Elizabeth Jones as Rosie Mee, Angus Macfadyen as Peter MacCready, Elle Fanning as Lily Miska, Patrick Fugit as Robin Jones, John Michael Higgins as Walter Ferris, Stephanie Szostak as Katherine Mee, Carla Gallo as Rhonda, Desi Lydic as Shea Seger