We Bought A Zoo - Matt Damon, Colin Ford, Thomas Haden Church, Scarlett Johansson, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Elle Fanning, Angus MacFadyen, Ben Seeder, Dustin Ybarra, Patrick Fugit, Alice Marie Crowe and Sam Fox
We Bought A Zoo - At the ribbon-cutting for the reopening of the zoo, from left, Benjamin (Matt Damon), Dylan (Colin Ford), Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), Lily (Elle Fanning), Peter (Angus MacFadyen), Bruce (Ben Seeder), Nathan (Dustin Ybarra), Robin (Patrick Fugit), the Parrot Lady (Alice Marie Crowe) and Alison (Sam Fox) © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

We Bought a Zoo – Cameron Crowe’s first film in six years, since the disastrous Elizabethtown – is meant to provide holiday cheer, to touch our souls and warm us deep within, and it does that, though with way more manipulation than is necessary.

You’ve got the likeable widowed dad, Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), and his young children, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and Dylan (Colin Ford). They relocate from the big city to the country, and into a house on a property that’s actually a… zoo. The zoo is in deep disrepair and has been closed for a while, and the Mees represent the last chance for its inhabitants and employees.

Among those employees are zookeepers Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) and Lily (Elle Fanning). What do you think the odds are that, while restoring the zoo to its former glory, Benjamin will win over Kelly and Dylan will form a bond with Lily?

We Bought A Zoo - Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson and Patrick Fugit
Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) gets some pointers in animal husbandry from head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), as zookeeper Robin Jones (Patrick Fugit) and his capuchin look on © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox

Everything you think will happen between them does happen, and the same can be said about the film as a whole. There are, really, no surprises. Damon puts his charming everyman persona to great use here; you can’t not like him, and he humanizes the proceeding, especially the scenes with Jones, who smiles angelically through nearly every shot, and Ford, who come across a touch raw.

Johansson nicely underplays her role, while Thomas Haden Church tries his damnedest to make his cliché-spouting moments as Benjamin’s loving-but-doubting brother ring true. He comes close, but, again, like the film itself, just misses the mark. It’s too much, too in-your-face, too predictable.

And speaking of in your face, John Higgins Clark flat-out chews the scenery and twirls the proverbial mustache in his turn as an unsympathetic zoo inspector. Finally, there’s really no figuring out what Patrick Fugit – from Almost Famous – is up to or why he’s even in the film.

At the end of the day, We Bought a Zoo is reasonably good family fare in a marketplace sorely lacking any. Crowe may tilt toward the sentimental, but his heart is in the right place and his film is blessedly cynicism-free.

Let’s put it this way: We Bought a Zoo is a supersized version of the trailer. If you loved the trailer, you’ll love the movie and if the trailer made you cringe, well, you know the rest.

[Rating: 2.5 Stars]