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Sappy 'We Bought a Zoo' fails to earn its stripes

Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson deal with some animal magnetism inTwentieth Century Fox


We all go into sentimental movies with certain pre-set buttons that directors try to hit -- some people lose it when a beloved doggie dies, others shed tears when long-estranged lovers are reunited, and then there are those who reach for their hankies when a gruff dad finally articulates his love for his child.

Me, I'm an easy touch for the dead-mom movie, so when one of those fails to move me, it's clear that whoever's jerking the tears isn't doing his or her job. Which brings us to Cameron Crowe's latest, "We Bought a Zoo."

In telling the true story of writer Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon, saddled with a wretched haircut), who raised his kids amongst a menagerie of wild animals following the death of his wife, director and co-writer Cameron Crowe doesn't take things as disastrously off the rails as his previous feature, "Elizabethtown." Still, the results feel artificial and sappy, with only a few too-little-too-late moments where the tragedy of losing a mother or a wife is handled with anything resembling grace.

Part of the problem could stem from Fox's desire to turn this movie into another "Marley and Me," and the resemblances don't end with the posters featuring animals bearing festive gift ribbons. Like that earlier hit, this is a film about a writer and his family moving into an enormous house, dealing with personal loss, and fighting for camera time against a gaggle of photogenic and insanely cute animals.

Or maybe we can pin it on Crowe's collaborator, Aline Brosh McKenna, the first writing partner that the auteur has ever employed -- or had forced upon him, as the case may be. (The first credited one, anyway.) In just over a decade as a working screenwriter, McKenna has been credited with some of the most noxious comedies of the era, including "27 Dresses," "Laws of Attraction," "Three to Tango," and "I Don't Know How She Does It," so perhaps the forced emotional content and paper-thin characterizations are her fault.

In any event, the film follows Benjamin as he moves his cheery daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and sullen son Dylan (Colin Ford) into a somewhat ramshackle animal park that's in need of both cash and a little TLC if it's ever going to open its doors again. The place comes with a staff that includes overworked animal expert Kelly (Scarlett Johansson, frumping herself up as much as possible), boisterous animal-enclosure designer Peter (Angus MacFayden), and a handful of others.

The only ones in this crew who get anything resembling character development are Rosie and her niece Lily (Elle Fanning), and only because they're there as potential romantic interests for Benjamin and Dylan, respectively. As for Peter, and Patrick Fugit's Robin, they're basically one-quirk characters who just exist in the background.

The big plot dilemma revolves around an obnoxious USDA inspector played by John Michael Higgins, whose say-so dictates whether or not the animal park can be open to the public, and not even as gifted a comic actor as Hitchcock can make this character anything more than a two-dimensional bureaucrat.

"We Bought a Zoo" only rarely addresses the bizarre notion that an average family could, in fact, buy a zoo, and the few moments where the topic comes up allows Thomas Haden Church to mostly steal the movie in his handful of appearances as Benjamin's brother. But the ongoing mope-fest about Benjamin missing his wife and his kids longing for their dead mother are the stuff of basic-cable cheese-fests.

There's a lovely score by Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi, but we're allowed to hear it all too infrequently, because Crowe would rather indulge his penchant for aging-boomer rock favorites at the most thuddingly obvious opportunities. Playing Cat Stevens' "Don't Be Shy" over a scene where characters are meeting for the first time is one thing, but Tom Petty's "Don't Come Around Here No More" to score a school expulsion? "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" during a rainstorm? Come on!

If anything about "We Bought a Zoo" lingers after the lights come up, it's the performance from Church, and the one from Katie -- she plays the zoo's aging alpha tiger, who just wants to be put out of his misery. After 124 minutes of these shenanigans, you may empathize.

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