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Creature feature; Despite pedigree, 'We Bought a Zoo' is a mutt of a film

It happens with animals all the time, whether it's a race horse or purebred pup. People read through the pedigree, look at the teeth, check the hips and decide this one has the makings of a winner.

But sometimes, what they wind up with is simply a perfectly fine, if unexceptional pet -- nothing wrong with it, really, but it's not going to bring home any trophies.

Such is the case with the perfectly fine family film "We Bought a Zoo." It has a great pedigree: Cameron Crowe wrote the screenplay with Aline Brosh McKenna, who gave "The Devil Wears Prada" its bite, and Crowe ("Jerry Maguire," "Almost Famous") also directed, his first major film in six years; they adapted the story from a well-respected British journalist's memoir. For stars, Crowe signed up Hollywood heavyweights Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, along with indie notables Thomas Haden Church, Elle Fanning and Patrick Fugit.

But together, what we get is more of a well-meaning mutt.

Damon plays Ben Mee, an adventure-seeking, world-traveling journalist whose young wife dies before the movie really starts. Now a homebound widowed father, he struggles to come to grips with his loss and to terms with day-to-day household matters. His young daughter (adorable Maggie Elizabeth Jones) steps up to help; his adolescent son ("Supernatural's" Colin Ford) is coping by striking out at everything within swinging distance. As problems at school escalate, he takes a defiantly angry attitude: "Dad, nobody's going to give an F to a kid whose mom died six months ago."

It's a bitter position to take, but at this point, as Ben says, they are all "sick of sympathy." So, he decides to start over, far from painful memories. But the perfect house also comes with a unique piece of property: A small, struggling private zoo. The attraction is barely functional, under state receivership, with the animals cared for by a small, dedicated, undercompensated staff until a new owner can be found.

So Ben -- still adventuresome -- buys it. As he says at one point, "Why not?"

You want to wish him well, but can't help feeling just like his new employees, who find it hard to believe that a guy with virtually no knowledge of exotic animals and limited resources is up to this challenge. Even his brother (Thomas Haden Church), who knows him better than anyone, warns him off, reminding him that his journey through the stages of grief should "stop just before zebras get involved."

(This all has an unfortunate added level of creepiness since the horrible slaughter of animals freed at a private zoo in Ohio in October by an overwhelmed owner who killed himself, so we'll note that the zoo that the real Benjamin Mee runs in England has been honored for its progressive treatment of its animals.)

Once the family gets settled, the movie could take a comic turn, or perhaps a romantic one, as Ms. Johansson is one of Mr. Damon's employees, or even an ecological one. Instead, it flits around among all these plots, never getting enough of a toehold to take off in any one direction.

There is a drama about an ailing tiger, a conflict with a zoo inspector, and some comic moments with a grizzly bear. But, despite everyone's good intentions, there is no "You complete me" moment, for man nor beast.

And that's how our zoo story feels. A lot of nice parts, but all put together, not much of a picture.




2 stars (out of 4)    

STARRING: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson and Elle Fanning    

DIRECTOR: Cameron Crowe    

RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes    

RATING: PG for language and some thematic elements.    

THE LOWDOWN: A widower with two children tries to rebuild his family and his life after buying a troubled private zoo.    

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