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‘We Bought a Zoo (Japan title: Shiawase e no Kiseki)’

Why zookeepers make great dads

by Kaori Shoji

The latest on the Japanese dating-scene bulletin says ikumen are it. And what exactly are ikumen? These are men (perhaps the first in the history of this nation) willing to nurture and raise children, and actually profess to enjoy it. Coming from a family whose male members would have all chosen ritual suicide over changing diapers, this is an incredible turn of events.

Which is why a movie like “We Bought a Zoo” is bound to have Japanese women (it can’t just be me, right?) in a vice grip of longing. Not only is the protagonist portrayed by Matt Damon an ikumen of the first caliber, he’s willing to expand his horizons by including animals in the list of living organisms that must be fed, loved and cared for. The mere description of such a man brings tears to my eyes.

“We Bought a Zoo” is based on the real-life experiences of the Mee family (they make a brief cameo appearance in the movie), whose tale is recounted in a book of the same title by the dad, journalist Benjamin Mee, played on screen by Damon.

Benjamin is the globe-trotting adventurer type, with a string of reporting assignments, until he loses his wife to a brain tumor and he’s left with two kids and a fridge full of decomposing casseroles (brought over by well-meaning friends). For six months he sticks it out, grieving and helpless while his 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford) recedes into a shell of silent moping and 8-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) observes that the sound from a neighbor’s party seems like “happiness that is too loud.”

But Benjamin is a tough and creative guy. He ups the stakes and buys a much bigger home, one that just happens to be situated on the premises of a zoo. The condition of purchase is for the Mees to renovate the tumble-down site, turn it into a money-making venture and pass a zoo inspection.

Benjamin’s decision to buy the place causes his natural ikumen instincts to kick in.

Before you can say “Fennec Fox,” the Mee family have moved. Rosie loves the place right away, but Dylan rolls his eyes and acts disgusted. On the other hand, Benjamin finds that he and his teenage son finally have something to talk about.

“We Bought a Zoo” is directed by Cameron Crowe, his first outing since “Elizabethtown” in 2005. His stories seem to have shrunk in scale somewhat since 1996′s Oscar-winning “Jerry Maguire” and 2000′s “Almost Famous,” and what “We Bought a Zoo” boils down to really is a family in bereavement about to move on. Crowe glosses over whatever road bumps the real Mee family may have encountered and scatters convenient little pit stops, such as the cute and perky Lily (Elle Fanning), who bats her eyes at Dylan and develops a major crush. And then there’s earthy, gorgeous zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), who initially pegs Benjamin as a fake ikumen, forcing himself through the rebound with this venture.

That’s just a prelude for Benjamin to prove worthy in her eyes and reveal his natural nurturing abilities, which extend to the zoo’s staff as well as its animals. Damon put on a significant chunk of weight for this role, and he radiates a woolly warmth he rarely shows (fans of the “Bourne” franchise may be in for a surprise). Pretty soon, Kelly is surprised by her own attraction to him, and starts spending more time with the family, helping out with dinner.

At some point, however, you are bound to realize that Damon’s Benjamin is a fairy-tale dad. It takes a lot to be an ikumen, but being Benjamin Mee is a whole other, uh, animal. Only the enormously heroic need apply for this post, but even then, few will have the courage to earn it. “We Bought a French Restaurant,” OK. “We Bought a Used Car Business,” completely feasible. But buying a zoo with a very large snake farm, with an irate teenage son in tow? That’s a whole other difficulty level.

In “Jerry Maguire,” Crowe seemed more interested in probing the darker, more selfish sides of the main character’s personality. In “We Bought a Zoo,” he displays no such ambition. The movie doesn’t exactly “have you at hello,” to co-opt a line from that earlier film. Rather, Crowe waits for the story to grow on us before easing into a quiet and thoroughly palatable conclusion. Is this a good thing? Probably so. Crowe has honed his gift, and now he’s ready to teach us the value of a happiness that is not too loud.