After being force-fed a steady diet of Oscar hopefuls for almost a month, I may just be ready for empty-calorie time at the cineplex. But I have to confess a sense of relief this week, as I watched entertainments that didn't seem to want to do anything other than show an audience a good time.
No art to speak of, no lay-your-ears-back performances, no contemplating of important issues or important lives. Just Cameron Crowe laying on the charm with a trowel in We Bought a Zoo, and Steven Spielberg in an exuberant, let's-see-what-we-can-do-with-3-D-and-motion-capture display in Adventures of Tintin: Secrets of the Unicorn. Both pictures evaporate as soon as you hit the pavement, but both are entirely pleasant experiences inside the theater.
The central character in We Bought a Zoo is Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a recent widower who's privately grieving while trying, somewhat ineptly, to raise two kids on his own. His 15-year-old son, Dylan (Colin Ford), has been acting out since his mother's death and gets expelled from school for petty theft. Benjamin's 6-year-old daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), is at that wise-beyond-her-years stage, but Benjamin worries that that won't last if they don't shake things up somehow.
So with his family fragile, he opts for a change. Looking for a new house, and not finding anything right in the suburbs, he leaps impulsively when Rosie seems enchanted by a small, run-down country zoo, and he buys it. Maybe feeding porcupines is just the therapy they need.
The zoo comes with a cast of bohemians — the only real Crowe touch — including Scarlett Johansson as head zookeeper and potential romantic interest. And Benjamin comes with a wisecracking brother (Thomas Haden Church) to tell him he's lost his mind.
Damon proves amiable and appealing in a part that's not asking him to stretch much. In fact, the only real surprise in We Bought a Zoo is that it was made by the guy responsible for Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. (Patrick Fugit, an actor who's made a career of living up to that last title, in which he starred, is one of this film's bohemians.)
None of those comparatively edgy pictures can remotely be called a family film, and next to them We Bought a Zoo is downright Disneyesque. In a good way, actually: It deals thoughtfully with loss and family dynamics, and whenever the plot threatens to become too predictable, Crowe deploys his secret weapon: the pint-sized Jones, who qualifies as maybe the most formidably adorable child in all of movies at the moment. She's also the only person on screen who doesn't at some point get upstaged by the critters.
In The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, nobody on screen can be upstaged — because there's no one on screen. Just pixels: Spielberg has been playing with the motion-capture technique once championed by his mentee Robert Zemeckis in that other Christmas release, The Polar Express.
Waiting seven years for the technology to ripen a bit turns out to have been smart. Boy reporter/detective Tintin and his cohorts (including his trusty terrier Snowy) don't have the dead eyes of the characters in that earlier picture, and both the surfaces and the motion being captured feel far more persuasively of this world.
The story amounts to a globe-trotting treasure hunt, not unlike Spielberg's Indiana Jones films, in which Tintin (Jamie Bell) teams up with the frequently sozzled seafarer Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) to outpace the nefarious Sakharine (Daniel Craig) and recover whatever went down with the cargo ship Unicorn some three centuries earlier.
The faces in Tintin have been tweaked to look like the Belgian comic-book figures they're based on, but everything else — from city streets to a ship sailing improbably across a desert, looks eye-poppingly real. I'll leave to others the debate about whether motion-capture is essentially animation. Whatever it is, it's now persuasive enough that you can see how it'd appeal to someone like Spielberg, who's done pretty much everything you can do with a conventional camera.
Here, when a digitized eagle snatches an important scrap of paper from a digitized hero and flies with it in 3-D off the screen into the auditorium, you can almost hear the director chortling, "Oooh, there's something I could never do with real actors." The joy he brings to the film's action is contagious — a motorcycle flying skyward as it flies apart, its rider whipping the handlebars upside down to turn a clothesline into a zip line.
And if there's less to Tintin in the way of personality — certainly nothing to touch We Bought a Zoo's Rosie for pure adorability — that's mostly because Spielberg is having too much fun with his digital toys to slow down for character-building. If you're gonna capture motion, might as well cram in a lot of it; save the emotion-capture for next week, and War Horse.