"Big gestures are common currency in Cameron Crowe country," begins Vadim Rizov at GreenCine Daily, and that's the gist, too, of Sam Adams's piece for Slate: "He's made bad movies, but never a bad trailer." Vadim: "John Cusack holding a boombox over his head in Say Anything..., Jerry Maguire's much-quoted romantic highlights ('You had me at hello'), an unironically lovestruck-and-desperate run alongside a moving bus in Almost Famous. Crowe openly states his method in We Bought a Zoo: 'All you need is 20 seconds of insane courage,' dad Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) tells lovestruck son Dylan (Colin Ford). 'And I promise you, something great will come of it.' This is both a baldly stated stab at future quotability and a declaration of Crowe's full investment: every time his characters do something outsized and cornball, he's the one hoping a great moment rather than a fiasco will emerge from it."
"Cameron Crowe can be a big old cheeseball, but he's never been a filmmaker to come across as cynical or calculatedly manipulative," writes Alison Willmore in Movieline. "That's one of the reasons We Bought a Zoo doesn't leave your heartstrings feeling brutally manhandled, despite being a treacly tale about how a widower in search of a fresh start buys and moves to a struggling animal park with his two beautiful, sad children. The other reason is Matt Damon, who underplays the role of still-grieving dad Benjamin Mee as much as possible and brings an edge of genuine frustration to his relationship with his teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford). Though overall the film's still as honey-toned as the golden sunshine that slants through most of its scenes, the occasional glimpse of a rough human edge means this isn't just an exercise in mawkishness, though it's also nowhere near as emotionally resonant as it strives to be."
"A tiger ravaged by the effects of Forced Metaphor Syndrome""Despite a healthy number of big, dramatic scenes, Damon's character never really comes to life," finds Keith Phipps at the AV Club, "and the kids end up feeling like clichés. Crowe has a long history of writing memorable parts for young actors, but [Maggie Elizabeth Jones, playing the seven-year-old daughter] is a stock moppet, and Ford's misfit could have stepped in from an ABC Family Original Movie. (Elle Fanning has slightly better luck as a pixieish girl who charges herself with making Ford's life better, a device Crowe has used better elsewhere.) Even the zoo seems underdeveloped, never coming alive as a place. That Crowe focuses most of the animal action on an aged tiger Damon remains determined to save against the odds — a tiger ravaged by the effects of Forced Metaphor Syndrome — doesn't help."
"The problem with We Bought a Zoo is that it talks about suffering without ever convincingly walking that walk," suggests the Boston Globe's Ty Burr. "How hard can it be for Benjamin to reawaken to life when Scarlett Johansson is standing right there as head zookeeper Kelly, her hair gone ratty in a misfired attempt to look 'plain'?… The only character who really seems up against it is that tiger, a magnificent specimen with clouded eyes and a bone-weary attitude. Maybe he's wishing he could have been in Jerry Maguire instead."
"Perhaps figuring he couldn't handle all of the story's romantic clichés on his own," writes Time's Richard Corliss, "and needing an abettor in the Mee degeneration, Crowe teamed with screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna, whose résumé includes such gynocentric rom-com slop as Three to Tango, 27 Dresses, I Don't Know How She Does It and Morning Glory (with the minor mitigating credit of The Devil Wears Prada). Maybe McKenna came up with the ending, which makes It's a Wonderful Life seem misanthropic by comparison."
More from Manohla Dargis (New York Times), AA Dowd (Time Out Chicago, 2/5), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 2.5/4), Jesse Hassenger (L), Glenn Kenny (MSN Movies, 3.5/5), Dan Kois (Slate), Mark Olsen (Box Office, 2/5), Nick Schager (Slant, 1/4), Matt Singer (IFC) and Jim Tudor (Twitch). Interviews with Crowe: Todd Gilchrist (Movies.com) and Nisha Gopalan (Vulture). Mina Hochberg talks with Johansson for Vulture.
As part of a Hollywood Reporter cover package, Crowe lists his five favorite films (probably in order): Quadrophenia (1979), Local Hero (1983), Stolen Kisses (1968), The Rules of the Game (1939) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001).