The first two thirds of Cameron Crowe‘s We Bought A Zoo (20th Century Fox, 12.23), which had a nationwide sneak last night, tries too hard to be endearing, or so it seemed to me. For 80 minutes or so it’s a not too bad family-type movie that works here and there. In and out, at times okay and other times oddly artificial. And then it kicks into gear during the last third and delivers some genuinely affecting sink-in moments and a truly excellent finale.

Matt Damon, imprisoned Bengal tiger in We Bought A Zoo.

The smarty-pants Twitter community was generally thumbs-up about Zoo following the sneak so I guess my mixed sourpuss feelings represent a minority view.

Matt Damon is better-than-decent in the lead role of Benjamin Mee, a nice guy who for complex emotional reasons decides to buy a zoo in the Thousand Oaks area. Scarlett Johansson is believably forceful as the head zoo keeper (or whatever the correct title is), and Thomas Haden Church is under-utilized as Damon’s advice-giving older brother. The stand-out performance comes from 14 year-old Colin Ford, I feel. There’s also a surprisingly inconsequential, poorly written one given by Elle Fanning, who by the way wears too much eye makeup.

The first two thirds are better at delivering family-friendly studio schmaltz than War Horse, but that’s not saying much. It suffers from on-the-nose dialogue and a bad case of the cutes, which is what happens when Crowe’s magical realism vibe doesn’t quite lift off the ground because the exact right notes haven’t been found or hit. The movie never really transforms into a suspension-of-disbelief thing. You’re constantly aware that you’re sitting in a theatre seat watching actors speak that tangy, semi-natural-sounding, spiritually upbeat Crowe dialogue and listening to the usual nifty Crowe-selected rock tunes (“Cinnamon Girl”, “Bucket of Rain”, etc.).

But the last third kicks in with better-than-decent emotional conflict and payoff scenes, and the heart element finally settles in from time to time, and there’s a great diatribe against the use of the word “whatever” and an exceptional father-son argument scene and nice use of refrain (“Why not?”). Endings are half the game, and by that rule or standard We Bought A Zoo saves itself. It won’t kill you to see it, and you might like the first two-thirds more than I did. Whatever.

Johansson gets to do a lot of arguing and shouting in this thing, and at some point I began saying to myself, “Jesus, I wouldn’t ever want to be in an argument with her…she’s really angry and adamant and unyielding.” And I began to think that I might be sensing, maybe, how her marriage to Ryan Reynolds came apart.

Damon, Johansson, Cameron Crowe during filming of We Bought A Zoo

The film is based on Benjamin Mee‘s true-life, this is what really happened book of the same title, but it’s been personalized by Crowe to some extent and is basically about recovering from loss, grief, trauma. Crowe’s marriage fell apart in 2008 and his career hit a land mine in 2005 with Elizabethtown and then stalled again with mysterious shutdown of Deep Tiki in late ’08/early ’09 so Zoo is actually his story on one level or another, I suspect.

But my basic feeling about We Bought A Zoo is similar to a line that former Secretary of State James Baker once said about a senior Iraqi official during the 1991 Gulf War: “A good diplomat with a bad brief.”

We Bought A Zoo is harmlessly decent family pap, but it rests upon a fundamentally rancid notion that zoos are cool. Zoos are emphatically not cool. I’ve been to zoos three or four times in my life and I like checking out the giraffes and lions and orangutans as much as the next guy, but they’re built on the conceit that animals living sullen and diminished lives inside cages are entertaining, and that looking at these creatures from the safe side of a cage and chuckling at their behavior and smelling their scent somehow enhances our lives by connecting us (or our kids) to nature. Which is, of course, horseshit.

Outside of the makers of this film and zoo owners and clueless lower-middle-class Walmart types, I don’t think there are any intelligent and compassionate people on the planet who believe zoos are a good idea. At best they’re an unfortunate idea. A message during the end credits informs that Mee’s zoo in England (i.e., Dartmoor Zoological Park) is a highly respected one, but it’s still a zoo.

Last month’s exotic animal slaughter in Ohio reminded a lot of us that it’s fundamentally wrong to keep exotic animals in cages to satisfy some bizarre emotional longing to bond with them, which, outside of respectably maintained zoos, is some kind of low-rent, Middle-American scumbag thing. Remember how Tony Montana kept a Bengal tiger chained up on the grounds of his mansion?

Zoos are prisons, and it’s dead wrong to sentence animals to life terms in them, however spacious and well-maintained their cages or how loving and caring and compassionate their keepers may be. Zoo animals don’t live in “enclosures,” as zoo-keepers prefer to call them these days. They live in effing jail cells just like Jimmy Cagney and George Raft did in Each Dawn I Die, or Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock.

Crowe is renowned for using great rock-music tracks in his film, but I doubt if he ever considered using Presley’s “I Want To Be Free” for We Bought A Zoo. I thought of it last night when I was driving home from the screening, I can tell you.

“There’s no joy in my heart, only sorrow

And I’m sad as an animal can be

I sit alone in my fake-love enclosure

And this enclosure is a prison to me

“I look out my window

And what do I see?

I see a bird

Up in a tree


“I want to free! (oh, yeah)

Free! (oh, yeah)

Free-hee-hee…I want to be free

Like a bird in a tree (wanna be free)”