American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
There really is a Benjamin Mee, and he and his family really did buy a zoo. The Dartmoor Zoological Park in Devon, England, was opened in 1968, closed in 2006 and then was purchased by the Mee family. In adapting these facts into the movie "We Bought a Zoo," all Cameron Crowe has done is move it to Southern California, supply it with a staff of character actors, add two romances and a villain. The result is too much formula and not enough human interest.
Not that the film is without charms as a choice for the holiday season. Matt Damon makes a sturdy and likable Benjamin Mee, and Scarlett Johansson, as the head of the zoo's animal keepers, seems adamantly unaware that she's in a script that requires her to sooner or later kiss the hero. We even see Patrick Fugit, immortal as the hero of Crowe's "Almost Famous," as a member of the zoo staff named Robin Jones. He's never seen without a monkey on his shoulder, though that's his only point of interest. ("What do we do to make the Robin character interesting?" "He always has a monkey on his shoulder.")
At the film's outset, Benjamin Mee is still in mourning after the death of his wife. He's raising their kids Dylan (Colin Ford), in his mid-teens, and Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), who is 7. Dylan is nabbed for shoplifting, and Benjamin, a journalist, decides it's time to leave the big city and raise them in the country. He finds an ideal house, which the real-estate agent only gradually explains comes with its own menagerie. The place was once a private zoo, shut down for reasons involving money and regulations, and Kelly Foster (Johansson) minds the animals with the help of Peter (Angus Macfadyen), a pipe-puffing Scotsman, and Kelly's teen niece, Lily (Elle Fanning), who seems not entirely unaware she's in a script that may require her to sooner or later kiss Dylan.
Benjamin's brother, Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), is an accountant who urgently advises Ben not to buy a zoo. Well, that's the function of a good accountant. How many times has my own accountant entreated me, "Roger, whatever you do, don't buy a zoo!"