Here’s how Christmas week at the movies is going. I’ve seen three new films by three proven directors. All of them have been entertaining and long—over 150 minutes. David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was stylish and had so much plot viewers really couldn’t expect it all to be fully developed. Brad Bird’s “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” had so much action it almost avoided having to stop to explain itself.
And then there’s Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought a Zoo.” It is king sized, amusing, and relatively conventional, and if someone will just please tell me how the medical decline of an aging tiger is like the trouble the hero has getting over the death of his wife, I’d say it was just about completely successful.
Crowe directed “Jerry Maguire,” “Almost Famous,” and my favorite of his films, “Elizabethtown.” In all of them, his hero makes a professional change after a substantial failure, and in the process he learns something basic about himself. That’s what happens in the “based on a true story” of “We Bought a Zoo,” too.
Benjamin’s wife has died six months before the action in the movie. He isn’t adjusting very well, and neither is his teenaged son, Dylan. His little daughter Katherine, though, seems as happy as she is cute. Benjamin (Matt Damon) realizes that everyone he knows pities him, including his editor, played by the legendary Peter Riegert of “Animal House” and “Local Hero.”
So Dad quits his job, sells the house, and puts all his savings into a new project—he and the kids will move into a house on the grounds of a zoo they will take ownership of and help to get up to code. This will solve all their problems.
Except it doesn’t. Dylan (Colin Ford) still feels alienated. Worse yet, he begins to feel something for the little girl (one of the Fannings) who works at the zoo, and he doesn’t know how to talk to her.
Benjamin runs through his money, finds the code inspector deserves his legendary status as a tartar, worries endlessly about sending his oldest tiger into that good night, and still he can’t shake his desire to talk over his wife’s death with his dead wife.
Meanwhile he is getting good work and generally good advice out of his staff, which includes an attractive keeper named Kelly (Scarlett Johanson) and a young man played by Patrick Fugit, who as a teen played Crowe’s alterego in the largely autobiographical “Almost Famous.”
Benjamin and his brother (played by Thomas Hayden Church) are comic philosophers. Together they share the feeling that “...all you need are twenty seconds of insane courage…” to act in some way that will forever change your life for the better. Once Benjie gives this advice to Dylan, one can see most of the complications in this pleasant story begin to resolve themselves.
“We Bought a Zoo” is nice to look at, too, and Crowe, who used to work as a Rock music reporter and who was long married to Nancy Wilson of the band Heart, has picked some great music for the film, including what seem like remakes by the original artists of “Cinnamon Girl” and “Work to Do.” There’s a cover of an old Dusty Springfield song, “I Think its Going to Rain Today,” which is nice to hear, though the plot conflict it reflects on seems cliche.
So this is a good movie, another one worth seeing. If I understood the parallel involving that aging tiger, I might think “We Bought a Zoo” the most important of the three interesting, slightly long movies newly released this week.