FILM REVIEW: We Bought a Zoo (PG)

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123 mins) Drama/Romance. Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson,

Glossy Hollywood fiction slathers on the emotional syrup in We Bought A Zoo, a shamelessly sentimental tale of a father’s struggle to revitalise an ailing animal sanctuary in the aftermath of his wife’s death.

Based on the inspirational memoir by Benjamin Mee, the British newspaper columnist who took charge of Dartmoor Zoological Park in 2007, Cameron Crowe’s film doesn’t miss a single opportunity to shed crocodile tears and manipulate our emotions.

Each moment of internal anguish is underscored by a typically eclectic soundtrack of soft rock and a haunting original score composed by Jonsi Birgisson from the Icelandic band Sigur Ros.

Screenwriters Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna transplant the action from picturesque south Devon to the fictitious Rosemoor Wildlife Park in California, where mourning, guilt and father-son bonding play out against the backdrop of an inspection of the zoo’s facilities that will either shut down the attraction or guarantee its survival.

There are no prizes for guessing if the grief-stricken zoo workers snatch victory from the slavering jaws of defeat.

Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is trying to be strong for his teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford) and precocious young daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) following the death of his wife Katharine (Stephanie Szostak).

“Do me a favour - attempt to start over,” tenderly advises Benjamin’s accountant brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church).

So Benjamin moves his family into a ramshackle house that comes with a fully functioning zoo, complete with animals and ballsy head keeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson).

Benjamin sinks all of his money into the zoo, hoping to restore the facility to its former glory in time for an inspection by the notoriously pernickety Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins).

Duncan is horrified but Benjamin refuses to be dissuaded, inspiring alcohol-swigging handyman MacCready (Angus Macfadyen), animal handler Robin (Patrick Fugit) and Kelly’s teenage cousin Lily (Elle Fanning) to buy into his impossible dream.

We Bought A Zoo is Crowe at his most mawkish and cliched.

To say the script is heavy-handed would be an understatement.

Children stare mournfully into the camera; parents salve wounds with trite platitudes; a father stumbles upon a cash windfall in the nick of time; and an ageing tiger prepares to make a final journey to the great jungle in the sky.

The film’s trump card is Damon, who delivers a moving and honest performance as the family man haunted by memories of the past.

He shares pleasing screen chemistry with youngsters Ford and Jones and Church provides the comic relief, tenderly advising, “Travel the stages of grief but stop just before zebras get involved!”

While it might ultimately falter as a compelling drama, We Bought A Zoo will hopefully boost visitor numbers to Dartmoor Zoological Park, which is still on a financial knife-edge.

THAT would be a genuine Hollywood fairytale.

By Damon Smith

:: SWEARING :: NO SEX :: NO VIOLENCE :: RATING: 6/10

Released: March 16 (UK & Ireland), 123 mins