Ordinarily I wouldn't go see a family-friendly crowd-pleaser like We Bought A Zoo, but hey, it was Christmas, Janie and I wanted to go out and, frankly, if you're looking for a relaxing good time at the movies, there aren't many choices.
And really, it's not bad at all. You can sense writer-director Cameron Crowe trying to put a more personal spin on the original script, by Aline Brosh McKenna, author of such by-the-numbers claptrap as Morning Glory and (ugh) 27 Dresses. There are formulaic elements, but Crowe does his best to ignore them, aided immeasurably by Matt Damon's fine performance as a grieving widower trying to do right by his kids while still trying to sort out his own emotions.
So things happen--you might be surprised to learn that Damon buys a zoo--and the whole thing glides along nicely thanks to likeable actors and Rodrigo Prieto's shimmering cinematography. There is, however, one serious flaw that makes the whole movie unwatchable, in my opinion.
The family owns a beagle. There's an early, pre-zoo-buying scene in which Damon's adorable daughter is fixing a sandwich at the kitchen table while the dog just sleeps pleasantly in the other room. I'm not saying that's impossible, but in my experience, any self-respecting beagle is going to be right there at the kid's feet, just in case any food drops onto the floor.
But where the movie just turns into some sort of alternate-universe science fiction crap is when they get to the zoo. And the dog, again, just kind of sits on the porch, or otherwise completely ignores his surroundings.
I'm sorry, but this just isn't possible. This is a scenting dog! In a zoo! He's going to be going nuts, chasing down all the assorted animal smells. For crying out loud, there are foxes at this zoo, and he's a hunting dog. That's a plot point just waiting to happen, and the movie inexplicably ignores it in favor of a wandering bear, a dying tiger and some manufactured fake suspense over whether or not the zoo can be brought up to code.
I realize the vast majority of people could care less about this sort of thing--when I ranted about this to my brother, he said, "I didn't realize beagle owners were even more self-righteous than Mac users"--but I think it should be a good rule of thumb for all filmmakers: If you're going to bring a beagle onscreen, you'd better find something for it to do.
Or at least give it a few more close-ups.