“Why the long face?”
“Why the long face?”

After an extended layoff from directing films, Cameron Crowe made a return this year by helming a decent Pearl Jam documentary, and now he gives us We Bought a Zoo.

Zoo isn’t a great movie, but it does feature a strong performance from Matt Damon, and a bunch of cute and impressive animals, making it a pleasant enough experience and a step in the right direction for Crowe after the disaster that was 2005’s Elizabethtown. One could argue he hadn’t made anything worthwhile since 2000’s Almost Famous, but I actually really like 2001’s weird and much maligned Vanilla Sky.

The film is loosely based on the story of Benjamin Mee and his book chronicling the purchase and saving of a zoo. Damon plays Mee, a widower looking to give his son, Dylan (Colin Ford), and daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), a new start. He settles on a charming house sitting on 18 acres of land inhabited by lions, tigers, lemurs, a grizzly bear and much more.

The zoo comes with a staff, populated by the likes of Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), left in charge of the zoo and its animals after it was closed to the public. There’s also the goofy Lily (Elle Fanning), Kelly’s niece being home-schooled at the zoo and working in the small restaurant. The woman and the girl provide significant chances for Benjamin and Dylan to shake out of their funks.

Crowe pours it on thick with the emotional stuff, sometimes with success. Damon gets to show his comic and emotional range throughout the pic. His moment reminiscing about his wife while viewing pictures on his laptop is exceptionally moving. And the film’s closing scene is actually one of the finer sequences Crowe has ever put to film.

Where Crowe stumbles a bit is with some of the comic characters. John Michael Higgins is a bit much as an overzealous zoo inspector, essentially the film’s villain, and Carla Gallo is way over the top as a devious accountant. J.B. Smoove fares a little better as a real estate agent, as does Thomas Haden Church as Benjamin’s brother.

It’s as if Crowe has forgotten how to direct comedy. Damon has some good, subtle comedic moments, but with other characters, Crowe shoots for a strange strain of broad comedy that feels dated. Fortunately, this movie is mostly decent drama, with little comic moments that only work about half of the time. Some of the comedic attempts feel so dated and lame that I half expected a muted trumpet to go “Wuh … wah … waaahhh” after them.

The kids make up a big part of the film, and they all do fine. Fanning, who was good in the overrated Super 8, is sweet as the young girl falling in love for the first time. Ford is a bit much in some of his heavier scenes, but he calms down enough when it matters. And Jones is as adorable as anything in the movie.

The animals are a likeable lot, including a big old grizzly bear aching for more space. There’s also a sweet subplot involving a sick tiger, and Benjamin’s unwillingness to euthanize him. Yes, it’s supposed to be a sad parallel to Benjamin’s difficulty in letting his wife go, but Crowe modulates it well and keeps it tolerable.

Crowe has been teasing a sequel of sorts to his classic Say Anything …, an interesting choice. I wouldn’t mind seeing John Cusack and Crowe making magic again.

As for We Bought a Zoo, it’s good to see Crowe back on track. It doesn’t stand up to his best work, but there are hints of greatness in it. No, the Academy won’t come calling, but families equipped with wallets perhaps might, and that always makes a studio proud.

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