Director/co-writer Cameron Crowe isn't content to simply tug at your heartstrings in the cloyingly saccharine family drama We Bought a Zoo. On the contrary, by laying the ethereal music on so thick it's suffocating, relying on an abundance of cute cutaways to animals to punctuate every quirky character beat, and summoning the specter of the dearly departed for a dance of joy around a lonely kitchen, Crowe effectively attaches a tangled mess of steel cables to your ventricles, affixes them to a Mack truck, and punches the gas with all the subtlety of an adrenaline-addicted NASCAR driver gunning it for the checkered flag.
Recently widowed travel writer Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is still struggling to get over the recent loss of his beloved wife Katherine (Stephanie Szostak) when he decides that the best course of action is to buy a new house in order to make a fresh start. The moment Benjamin walks through a quaint farmhouse far from the city, it already feels like home. But this isn't your typical farmhouse -- it's actually a zoo populated by over 200 rare and exotic animals, and buying the house means becoming a zookeeper. Undaunted by the prospect of living with lions and grizzly bears, Benjamin makes an offer. Before long, the writer, his moody adolescent son Dylan (Colin Ford), and his wide-eyed daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) are moving into the house and getting to know not just the animals, but their human caretakers as well. Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), Peter MacCready (Angus Macfadyen), Lily Miska (Elle Fanning), and Robin Jones (Patrick Fugit) have devoted their lives to caring for the animals in the zoo, but as Benjamin works with the group to get ready for their first day in business, it quickly becomes obvious that Dylan is having trouble adjusting to his new life. Meanwhile, USDA inspector Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins) seems intent on shutting the zoo down, and Benjamin's brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church) reluctantly pitches in to help get the zoo up and running.
Thanks to films such as Say Anything..., Singles, Jerry Maguire, and Almost Famous, Crowe established himself as a filmmaker with a sharp eye for musical detail. In those films (and perhaps a few others), the director married images and music in a way that at once stirred audience emotions while informing us about the characters. In We Bought a Zoo, what was once Crowe's greatest strength as a director becomes his Achilles' heel: It seems as if not a single emotional beat goes by in the film that isn't punctuated by the swelling strains of Sigur Ros, and though a few instances would have been forgivable, the songs quickly become unbearable as the director keeps relying on musical shorthand to provide the film with emotion. Perhaps it wouldn't have been quite as noticeable had Crowe and co-screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (The Devil Wears Prada, I Don't Know How She Does It) actually exercised some amount of restraint in layering on the schmaltz. Instead, the writers ladle on sentiment so syrupy it would give Mrs. Butterworth diabetes.
Likewise, the cast of We Bought a Zoo all turn in performances so self-consciously quirky and nice that the conflict in the film carries little dramatic weight outside of a few earnest exchanges between Benjamin and Dylan. By the time young Rosie exclaims "We bought a zoo!" for what feels like the umpteenth time, even altruistic idealists will find their inner cynics chucking incredulously.