In loosely adapting Benjamin Mee’s family memoir for the screen, Cameron Crowe has made what amounts to “Wonderful World of Disney” or “Hallmark Hall of Fame” movie with a more impressive cast than would have been involved in television fare. “We Bought A Zoo” is a formula piece to which the director brings virtually nothing of his distinctive voice.

The best thing about the film is Matt Damon, who exudes earnestness and sincerity in the role of Mee, a writer who in this telling decides to find a new home for himself, his darling daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and his troubled teen son Dylan (Colin Ford) after his wife’s death. Searching for a house where they might start anew, he opts for a distinctly unusual—and impractical—purchase: a rustic spread that also houses a defunct private animal park he must contractually agree to run. The decision brings a warning of impending disaster from his older brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), an accountant who’s bring urging Ben to get on with his life but thinks this is going too far.

But Mee buys the place and begins sinking all his savings into the operation. He’s inherited a quirky staff—manager Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), a tough and well-organized vet; master planner MacCready (Angus MacFadyen), a burly, boozy Scotsman; and vaguely hippie-ish animal handler Robin Jones (Patrick Fugit). Also on hand is Kelly’s niece Lily (Elle Fanning), a sweet kid who takes a shine to Dylan that the boy—still surly and uncommunicative—doesn’t reciprocate until late in the story, when he also comes to terms with his mother’s loss and bonds again with his dad (presumably giving up his habit of drawing the sort of frighteningly macabre images that got him bounced from school).

The movie juxtaposes this familial melodrama—the Mees’ overcoming their grief and learning to live in a new environment, with Ben and Dylan gradually growing close again—with the staff’s urgent effort to get the park ready for a visit by Walter Ferris (Joel Michael Higgins), a fussy, officious state inspector who has the power to shut it down. There are also mini-dramas with some of the animals, particularly Buster, a grizzly bear who escapes one day, and Spar, an elderly tiger that Ben resists putting down despite her obvious infirmity. And then there’s the big question of whether paying customers will show up on opening day—which, in any entirely predictable plot turn, is preceded by days of torrential rains before the sun pops out miraculously.

It should be clear that Cameron’s taken an easy road here, perhaps gun-shy after the conspicuous failure of his last picture, the more personal but anemic “Elizabethtown” (2005). He milks the material mercilessly, straining for tears and laughs the script never earns, especially in an ill-conceived postscript that goes so far as to introduce an apparition of the deceased Katherine Mee (Stephanie Szostak), who has earlier intervened posthumously—and implausibility—to save the homestead when financial disaster threatens. Crowe does manage some affecting moments in the relationship between Ben and Dylan, nicely played by Ford. By contrast, Rosie is as artificial as Shirley Temple, and the director’s incessant dependence on Jones for cute reaction shots—instead of the family dog—is a sign of desperation. (The habit of having the tyke blurt out “We bought a zoo!” at every conceivable opportunity makes for a painful refrain.)

The rest of the cast can’t do much with their stock parts. Johansson overuses her crooked smile in a futile attempt to simulate character, though she’s a naturally pleasant presence, and Church relies on his shambling “Sideways” charm to generate smiles without much success. MacFadyen unbalances things with a wildly over-the-top turn as the rambunctious Scot, and MacCready’s feud with Ferris, played with sit-com broadness by Higgins, is a damp squib indeed. As for Fanning and Fugit, they wander around the action blankly, as though uninformed of what they’re supposed to be doing.

Like all of Crowe’s films, “We Bought a Zoo” is handsomely made, and boasts a background score filled with golden oldies to complement Jonsi’s original music. But it’s really nothing more than an old-fashioned, family-friendly tearjerker that’s good-natured but not very successful at strumming the heartstrings, which is what it obviously wants to do.