When an audience sits down for a Cameron Crowe movie they have certain expectations. An amazing soundtrack; well-rounded, relateable characters; and a heartwarming, interesting story filled with clever, thoughtful dialogue. We’ve seen these things in Crowe’s most beloved films: Say Anything, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. He got away from that a bit with his last feature, 2005′s Elizabethtown, but I’m happy to report he’s back in his wheelhouse with We Bought a Zoo. Based on a true story, the film follows Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) who, following the loss of his wife, buys a zoo to reinvigorate his family.

We Bought A Zoo is Crowe at his most mainstream. The script is filled with the types of pitch-perfect, enlightening exchanges we’ve come to expect from his films but the story is a by-the-numbers rumination of redemption and family. Unfortunately, We Bought A Zoo is never much more than that. Still, it’s hard to imagine a filmmaker more in his element than Crowe is here.

We Bought A Zoo had a national sneak preview Saturday evening and I made it a point to attend. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it a point to get the time right and arrived what I thought was 15 minutes early, which was actually 15 minutes late. Besides being uncharacteristically non-punctual and horribly embarrassed, I decided I was not going to review the film in full because I didn’t see the film in full. However, I think I got a good sense of what Crowe was going for so I figured you might want to get an idea of what to expect on December 23 when We Bought A Zoo opens.

A rare family film that is not animated, We Bought A Zoo is tailor-made for the holidays. It has something for everyone. Among the standouts are Maggie Elizabeth Jones as Benjamin Mee’s daughter Rosie and Angus Macfadyen as MacCready, a drunk zookeeper who helps Benjamin whip the zoo into shape.

That rebuilding of the decrepit zoo is the main drive of the film and it’s an obvious metaphor for the Mees’ lives. Losing a mother or wife is never easy for a family but as the zoo gets rebuilt, so too do the family emotions and relationships. Benjamin’s relationship with his son Dylan, played by Colin Ford, is particularly effective. Less effective is his pseudo-romantic relationship with Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), the sweet but slightly ambiguous zookeeper. Their dynamic is downplayed for most of the film in service of the familial story and the two threads never quite compliment each other.

Almost everything else does compliment something though. The story lines; the score by Sigur Ros mainmain Jonsi; the dual Cameron Crowe dialogue gems. All of it comes together beautifully and you’re left with a pleasant, entertaining and family-friendly film. There’s nothing too deep in the movie, but it’s a real tear-jerking crowd-pleaser and fans of Cameron Crowe will be happy to know the filmmaker is back. Here’s hoping he doesn’t wait another six years to make a feature.

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