Cameron Crowe‘s We Bought a Zoo unfolds in the kind of universe where characters say things like “If you do something for the right reasons, nothing can stop you,” and indeed, it turns out that if your heart is in the right place, Mother Nature herself will stop and part the clouds to make your dreams come true. It’s a place where “Why not?” is a perfectly valid response to the question “What on earth possessed you to buy a zoo?” and where “insane courage” guarantees a desirable outcome. If all of that sounds cringingly sappy, well, it kind of is. But Crowe tells the tale with such genuine feeling that it’s tough not to fall for the movie’s charms all the same.

Based on the memoir by Benjamin Mee, the film follows a freshly widowed father (Matt Damon) who, in an unconventional attempt at self-therapy, moves himself and his two children Dylan and Rosie (Colin Ford and Maggie Elizabeth Jones) into a decrepit zoo. With the help of a small but devoted staff (Patrick Fugit, Elle Fanning, Angus Macfadyen) led by zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), the family sets about renovating the park for a grand reopening.

The strengths of We Bought a Zoo allow it to skate over some not-insignificant flaws. Lively performances go a long way toward masking the fact that the characters are underdeveloped. In particular, Fanning, who plays a junior version of the pixie-ish love interest we’ve seen in some of Crowe’s other films, has never been more charming, while¬†Thomas Haden Church draws big laughs as Benjamin’s skeptical brother Duncan; Damon and Johansson also do some nice work with a refreshingly nuanced relationship. Meanwhile, Aline Brosh McKenna and Crowe’s clever dialogue and Jonsi‘s emotional score keep the film relatively on track as the tone lurches from wacky to bittersweet and back again.

As with so many of Crowe’s films, We Bought a Zoo‘s greatest blessing is its utter sincerity. Even as the movie occasionally slips over from sweet to saccharine — as it does every time Rosie the allegedly adorable moppet appears — it feels so warm and personal that it’s easy to forgive its failings. At times, in fact, the movie’s imperfections almost seem endearing, in the same way an overcooked meal or a clumsily knitted scarf can be delightful if it’s made with love by a friend.

But that same earnestness works best when it’s grounded with real poignancy, as in Almost Famous, and that’s where We Bought a Zoo falters. While there are a few melancholy moments — one of the most arresting scenes involves a no-holds-barred argument between Benjamin and Dylan — there’s never any doubt that everything and everyone will turn out just fine. As a result, we never feel the weight of Benjamin’s sorrow, even though the film is ostensibly about recovering from the death of a loved one.

In the end, We Bought a Zoo makes a very likable piece of wholesome holiday entertainment, but feels too lightweight to amount to much else. At one point in the film, Fanning’s character peers at a drawing that moody, artsy Dylan is working on and remarks, “It’s a little dark. Where’s the sun?” That line seems to be the driving motto of the film, as Crowe ensures it is positive above all else. But as it turns out, lightness feels a lot less significant if there’s no darkness to contrast it.

/Film Rating: 7.0 out of 10.0

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