Cameron Crowe, the writer-director who had us from hello with "Jerry Maguire," turns to the family genre with "We Bought a Zoo," the true story of a widower and his children who combat grief by tackling an unlikely project. Perfectly packaged for Christmas, the movie has animals, kids and fine acting from Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, but it lacks the emotional honesty and unpredictability that made Crowe's early films so irresistible.
Damon is dependably likable as Benjamin Mee, a Los Angeles Times columnist who, following his wife's death, quits his job and moves to the city's outskirts to rehabilitate the decrepit Rosemoor Animal Park. His sullen 14-year-old, Dylan (Colin Ford), is in no mood for whimsy, but 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) is thrilled. (Thomas Haden Church, as Benjamin's brother, provides the disapproving voice of reason.)
Good news for father and son: There's a scrappy zookeeper, Kelly (Johansson, appealing in a nonglamorous role), with a cute assistant, Lily (Elle Fanning). But the mushy stuff will have to wait while everyone gets ready for the sneering inspector Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins, cartoonishly hiss-able).
The strained relationship between Benjamin and Dylan rings true, but most of the movie feels pat. It repeatedly borrows from Crowe's past films: Instead of the boombox John Cusack hoisted in "Say Anything," there's a sign in a window that begs, "If you love me let me know." But heart-on-sleeve only works with characters who have real hearts, and this film deals mainly in formulaic types.
A reality check: The Mees' real-life zoo, Dartmoor, is nowhere near Los Angeles but in rural Devon, England. That would have provided a more interesting backdrop (it's the setting for "War Horse," coincidentally) and also underscored Benjamin's daring, all-in gamble. "We Bought a Zoo" extols the virtues of taking risks, but never strays from the familiar.
PLOT Hoping for a fresh start, a widower and his children take on an unusual project. RATING PG (mild language and innuendo)
PLAYING AT Area theaters.
BOTTOM LINE Pat, corny and perfectly packaged for Christmas; a decent cast makes it tolerable.