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We Bought a Zoo

Year: 2011
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Cameron Crowe
Writer: Aline Brosh McKenna
Cast: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Elle Fanning, Thomas Hayden Church, Patrick Fugit

We've all got to get old some time, I guess. Cameron Crowe's heart was in the right place with this film, but somebody should have warned him how sugary it was getting. Or maybe it was the studio insisting after they decided to release it at Christmas – the bus stop ads of zoo animals adorned with Christmas wrapping ribbons marketed it as a family film with animals, which it only half was.

I was actually excited after seeing the trailer. When Benjamin (Damon) asks someone for '20 seconds of insane courage' and promises life will change, I thought it was such a beautiful and strong theme for a movie and really wanted to see what it led to.

Unfortunately Damon's talent can't lift the whole thing above a quagmire of sentiment. After her star-making turn in Super 8, Elle Fanning is among the worst offenders, way too over the top with the pretty optimist role.

It's a little fair to call it a bland, lovable underdog movie because it's based on a true story. Some months after the death of his beloved wife, Benjamin makes an effort to reconnect with his kids by moving them to the country. The only property they find that's suitable happens to be an ailing zoo, and suddenly he's fighting an official inspection deadline and dwindling finances to get the place ready for re-opening and turn the fortunes around before he has to fire all the dedicated staff.

The cast are all very photogenic but the dramatic beats are all a little too predictable, from the mild sexual tension with gorgeous head zookeeper Kelly (Johansson) to the comically nasty government inspector. The arc was a little predictable but I could have lived with that if the whole thing hadn't drowned under a cloying blanket of sweetness.

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