There is good news and bad news about Cameron Crowe's new film, which is adapted from the true story of a family who bought a run-down zoo on a whim and brought it back to life.
The good news is that it's a feel-good crowd-pleaser that will appeal mainly to older audiences, with some fine performances from the humans and animals alike.
It's a big improvement on Crowe's previous film, Elizabethtown, which was so reviled it almost killed his career.
The bad news is it's not as good as his previous films such as Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous and Say Anything. And that's mainly because Crowe overdoes the feel-good, ladling it on like syrup on pancakes until they're drowning in it. Crowe has always done this but here he adds an Enya-like score, too many tears and about 20 gushy minutes that should have been edited out.
But it's fair to say that if you enjoyed Jerry Maguire - and most did - you will enjoy We Bought a Zoo because it copies Jerry Maguire's template.
Again, a 30-something hot shot has a midlife crisis, quits his job and takes on a risky but rewarding new enterprise. Replace Tom Cruise's sports agent for Matt Damon's journalist, having a meltdown for losing his wife and banking on one client for buying a run-down zoo, and it's the same film through and through.
Heck, all it needs is a "show me the money" style catchphrase. Given the zoo setting, I was surprised no one screamed: "Show me the monkey!"
Matt Damon is superb as Benjamin Mee, a journalist who recently lost his wife to cancer, leaving him to raise their button-cute seven-year-old daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and rebellious teenage son (Colin Ford). Struggling to cope and needing a fresh start, Benjamin quits his job and buys a small, ramshackle zoo with 47 species and a handful of employees.
The plot is textbook stuff, juxtaposing Benjamin's fight to hold his family together and find his place in life with the quest to get the zoo up to scratch in time for a make-or-break inspection.
Yet all of it tugs on our heartstrings, with Benjamin bleeding money and being way in over his head while wondering if he made the right career change.
See, it's Jerry Maguire Bought a Zoo! Switch Renee Zellweger's cutesy secretary with Scarlett Johansson's head zookeeper, and there's your simmering love interest.
Thomas Haden Church brings light relief as Damon's doubting- Thomas older brother and John Michael Higgins is suitably kooky as the fusspot inspector. But it's the girls who give the most in We Bought a Zoo.
Johansson gives a refreshingly earthy and unpretentious turn that's miles away from her many glamour roles. Young Elle Fanning - a revelation in Super 8 - confirms her next-big-thing status as a goofy teen charmer who crushes on Damon's son. And little Maggie Elizabeth Jones is as cute and charming as the baby critters she comes to care for.
I also like the way Crowe mines modern male malaise and the need for change, which is something many will relate to. If only he'd held back on the schmaltz, that central drama would have shone through.
Still, like an exaggerated Hollywood version of our own feel-good hit Red Dog, We Bought a Zoo will be a well-loved mutt at the movies. <div class="endnote">