My grown-up Christmas list:
1. I wish never again to see, and that means forever, a movie sold with billboards depicting cuddly animals, whether they're zebras or tigers or golden retriever puppies, with big red bows wrapped around their heads. It is now official visual code for "something in this movie dies."
2. I wish that "based on a true story" didn't exist. Because if it didn't then maybe we'd get stories routinely engaging with all the messiness of real life, instead of shallow, politely packaged Hallmark Channel-level emotional fakery. A man named Benjamin Mee (played here by Matt Damon, who should have lobbied harder for something, anything, to make this all feel less false) really did buy a zoo. The cathartic, emotional highs and lows, including a traumatic loss for his family, that took place after that zoo purchase, would have made for a really powerful documentary. What happens here makes for a very special episode of Seventh Heaven.
3. I wish I could recommend this to my conservative sister-in-law, because her kids will want to see it. But if I do recommend it then she'll just be mad at me. Because this PG film features a little too much profanity, and it all comes out of the mouths of the movie's children. I'm sure it felt gritty and real to let the 14-year-old boy in the movie swear at his own father, and maybe somebody out there gets off hearing a six-year-old girl call someone a "dick," but it's not anybody I know.
4. I wish Cameron Crowe would get over the fact that he made the awesome Almost Famous. Mostly I wish he would get over his insistence on letting you know how groovy his musical taste is. Because at this point in his life, he's a little too heavy-handed, on-the-nose and self-satisfied with the Dad Rock. You can almost hear him in the editing room, telling the music supervisor, "You know what would be great here in the scene where it rains and everybody's sad? That Randy Newman song, 'I Think It's Going to Rain Today.' Heavy, right?"
5. I wish movies sold on the backs of adorable animals gave them equal time. I like adorable animals as much as anybody. But you can feel Cameron Crowe straining against the idea of giving in fully to the cuteness because he's so intent on delivering cheap "meaning."
6. I wish for more offbeat roles for Scarlett Johansson, who plays the zookeeper here. You know she probably gets tired of being the va-va-voom lady everywhere she goes, so this was probably a nice break from that. Consequently, she's the most interesting person on screen.
7. Finally, I wish that Stepmom had never been made. Because it's the contemporary model of cruddy tearjerkers that earn nothing until the very last minute. Without giving away the details, the final moments of this film will make you cry. And when you're finished drying your eyes you'll feel cheated. Mostly, I just wish I didn't fall for it every dang time.