Cameron Crowe’s latest is a shamelessly sentimental tale about swapping the humdrum of city life for a shot at the stuff dreams are made of. But if (and only if) you survive the nausea-inducing appearance of dappled sunlight in almost every shot, there is actually a more credible story about the complexity of family life on offer.
Based (extremely loosely) on the true story of Benjamin Mee, a former Guardian DIY columnist who jacks it all in to run a zoo on the outskirts of Dartmoor along with his entire family, the glorious Hollywood makeover casts widower Mee as an adventuring hack played by Matt Damon.
In Crowe’s version of events, the motherless family are seeking pastures new when confronted by a rundown zoo in rural California which is full of bereft lions and doomed zebras. Unless someone buys soon they will all have to be “destroyed”. How could Mee resist? Especially not when his adorable daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) is running about naming peacocks and cooing over porcupines.
Mee is so seduced by his new zoo project and head zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), that a deal is soon sealed. But while Mee is busy living the dream, he manages to put son Dylan’s (Colin Ford) nose right out of joint.
The awkward father-son dynamic is played excellently by Damon and Ford and gives real weight to an otherwise pedestrian plot which has been reworked more times than Matt Damon’s hair (he’s now clean-shaven by the way). Newcomer Ford does moody teenager with the compulsory smouldering grump but with the weight of his mother’s death weighing heavy on his heart, he injects a heart-wrenching sadness that saves the performance from too much stereotypical lolloping.
Even Johansson is reasonably convincing as an animal-obsessed workaholic in her jeans and work boots. But on the appearance of yummy singleton Mee, that trademark pucker soon rears its glossy head. One stand out turn comes from Thomas Haden Church who appears as Duncan, the accountant brother of Mee and advisor against all things out of the ordinary. His comically colourful interjections provide a much-needed voice of reason in an adventure to the countryside that could otherwise look altogether ridiculous, even despite its true story roots.
For all its Disneyfied dallying around in glowing fields of luscious grass, the script has a solid stab at communicating the anguish of a family who have lost the plot. The love story between Mee and Kelly is inevitable from the first frame they share, but it is not given away too easily so as to make a mockery of the grief we have invested an hour and a half of our lives in.