At the movies: ‘Zoo’ is nothing new, but still fun |

At the movies: ‘Zoo’ is nothing new, but still fun

Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) goes face to face with Bengal tiger Spar in "We Bought a Zoo." The film is about a widowed father of two who starts down a new life path with his children.

Now playing:

"We Bought a Zoo"

2.5 out of 4 stars

123 minutes

Starring: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church and Elle Fanning

Now playing at West Theatre in Craig and Metropolitan Wildhorse Stadium Cinemas in Steamboat Springs.

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When parents want to make a difference in their children's lives, most of them will stop short of completely altering their progeny's world.

While a new baseball bat or a college savings bond will suffice for some, there's at least one dad who decided he wanted his kids to be able to tell people "We Bought a Zoo."

California newspaper columnist Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) has made his mark by tackling big stories about the scary parts of life. But, facing swarms of bees in an apiary suit or a hurricane in a tiny craft was nothing compared to his new escapade: single father.

Since the death of his wife (Stephanie Szostak), he has strained to make things work with his kids, Dylan and Rosie (Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones), but old memories provide more strife than he could have ever imagined.

What the family needs is a change of scenery, and when Benjamin finds the perfect house out in the country, it would seem their problems are solved. The one condition is the property has some former residents still living there.

Actually, a lot of them.

What the Mees have stumbled across is the site of Rosemoor Wildlife Park, home to about 50 species of animals who have been in need of an owner since their zoo shut down operations two years past.

With a newfound vigor, Benjamin is more than up for the challenge of getting the organization back on track, ignoring the financial advice of his brother (Thomas Haden Church). Though Rosie is happily on her father's side, Dylan isn't pleased with the idea of moving away from everything he knows.

What's more, Rosemoor's head zookeeper (Scarlett Johansson) has little faith in the new financier, considering he knows next to nothing about the furry and feathered life forms he has just purchased.

Joining the ranks of movie widowers who do something completely unpredictable after losing their significant other, Damon takes the real-life Benjamin Mee — a Brit whose actual zoo is in Devon, England — and makes him the typical all-American dad, just trying his best to do right by his progeny, even if it means getting an entire menagerie involved.

It's hard to imagine that there's a normal kid who wouldn't be delighted by living among jungle residents galore, but Ford is pretty convincing with his sour face and chip on his shoulder, making 14-year-old Dylan hard to like, even if it's simple to understand what kind of turmoil he's gone through.

While one Mee child is freshly expelled for constantly acting out at school and just can't cope with Mom's death, the other is incapable of being upset, with the adorable Jones providing a wonderful sunny nature for 7-year-old Rosie.

But, if there's one thing that sets her off, it's something scaly crawling on her foot.

Having someone who's spent half her life around animals helps in such instances. You'd swear Johansson had gone through veterinary training preparing for her role as high-strung caretaker Kelly, living in fear of being shut down for good by a finicky zoo inspector (John Michael Higgins) who cares more about his mechanical tape measure than the creatures he's observing.

It's almost cliché which animals get the most attention: Solomon the lion, Spar the Bengal tiger and Buster the grizzly bear.

It seems appropriate to say "Oh, my!" just for the sake of convention.

But, there are plenty more as well, like otters, kangaroos, zebras, porcupines, peacocks and parrots to name a few. A capuchin monkey named Crystal is even on staff as an assistant to the zoo handyman (Patrick Fugit).

By the way, that freakish looking thing which you probably have no clue how to identify is called a binturong, according to the end credits.

This vast menagerie is almost a side story in director Cameron Crowe's rendition of Mee's account of how a cluster of animals brought him and his kids together. The family drama at the center of this tale involving things with tails is keenly felt, especially when Benjamin and Dylan are locking horns, but something doesn't feel quite right.

With promotions comparing this story of self-discovery to Crowe's "Jerry Maguire," we'd expect more of a "Show me the money!" second that really gets our attention, even if the filmmaker shows he still knows how to cast a cute kid to play off adults.

When Jerry Maguire quit his job, it was with purpose and passion to pursue a more meaningful life. When Benjamin Mee quits his job, it just happens with no more conviction than a one-sentence letter of resignation.

But, Crowe's first feature since "Elizabethtown" isn't without some resonance.

Even if it's at a snail's pace, he still gets us to the significant moments, such as Dylan's brush with first love with Kelly's younger cousin (Elle Fanning) or Benjamin finally being able to look at pictures of his late wife without feeling like he's been kicked in the stomach.

"We Bought a Zoo" is more about the characters with two legs than those with four, which makes sense considering how little acting you'd get out of a wildebeest. And, it's a nice movie if hardly a great one.

It takes some time for Crowe and company to burst free of the unremarkable premise from which they start, but with a little elbow grease it happens little by little as they find their way out of the cage.

Sorry, I meant to say enclosure.

Now playing at West Theatre in Craig and Metropolitan Wildhorse Stadium Cinemas in Steamboat Springs.

Now playing:

“We Bought a Zoo”

2.5 out of 4 stars

123 minutes

Starring: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church and Elle Fanning

Now playing at West Theatre in Craig and Metropolitan Wildhorse Stadium Cinemas in Steamboat Springs.

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