Movie #42: We Bought A Zoo

I figured that this movie would be sweet and sentimental, but I did not expect how adorable it would be. Based on a true story, We Bought A Zoo is about a journalist-adventurer named Benjamin Mee (played by Matt Damon) who wants to make a fresh start with his two kids, after the death of his wife. As they are looking at various homes, Benjamin almost accidentally stumbles upon a slightly-dilapidated old place in the country where his seven-year-old daughter seems to be even happier than her normally jovial self. The catch, oddly enough, is that this property is actually a zoo with 47 species of animals, a staff, and they need him to save them. From the commercials, I thought the zoo angle was just a gimmick to dress up a charming, intelligently-written, romantic comedy. After all, the director (and co-writer) was none other than Cameron Crowe (writer-director of Jerry Maguire and Say Anything). Thankfully, this movie was actually more about Benjamin, his little daughter Rosie (She’s one of those edibly cute little girls who always says sublimely adorable things at the best times), and his moody teenage son Dylan (Isn’t that the perfect name for a moody teenage son?) and how they try to make this zoo work. The merest hint of romance with hot zookeeper Kelly (Again, the perfect name for a hot zookeeper, no? Especially when she’s played by Scarlett Johansson) is only a little bit of garnish to this movie. The rest is about how Benjamin tries to overcome the zoo’s financial challenges, get to know the crew (and the animals), and become a good father to his kids. Damon does a surprisingly nice job of playing Benjamin as a man who’s gone through an extreme loss but also stays grounded and real with those he cares about. He and Dylan (played by Colin Ford) have a rocky relationship, and the scenes where they try to relate but end up yelling at each other, are nicely done. They feel real because they don’t easily resolve things in an artificial moment of clarity. However, they are also scripted with some dialogue that seems a bit too well-written to be normal. It’s a nice balance that is maintained through most of the movie. At other times, the line is delicately walked between realism and cartoonishness, like when the government inspector comes to decide whether or not to approve the zoo’s licence (I was almost dreading that they might throw in some antics from the Capuchin monkey — thankfully they didn’t). Elle Fanning (who was wonderful in Super 8) again plays the bashful pre-teen ingenue who artlessly charms her way into Dylan’s heart. There are so many opportunities for this movie to indulge in sentimentalism, and for the most part it takes those opportunities, but it takes almost as many side-steps away from the obvious and sappy resolution to a scene. Between Rosie’s precociousness, Benjamin having heart-felt talks to animals, telling magical stories about his perfect wife, and the audience rooting for the success of the underdog (which in this case is the zoo itself), this movie clearly wants us to feel moved, but not manipulated. The one disappointment and distraction I found was with the soundtrack/sound mix, which was a bit treacly and more than a bit too loud. I know that Crowe likes to use music as part of a movie’s voice, but sadly this was overkill. Nevertheless, I just couldn’t stay mad for long. I was won over by the earnest warmth of a well-made movie about some surprisingly loveable and relatable characters who just happen to live in a zoo (4 out of 5).

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2 thoughts on “Movie #42: We Bought A Zoo”

  1. The real point to the movie is how we all are never really very honest with ourselves, while kids, are probably the most honest. Dyllan’s pictures were the most honest window into his soul, and yet the world adults set up for ourselves (Ben’s denial) makes everything unnecessarily complicated. The staff were a symbol of honesty in my mind, pressing Ben towards that inevitable explosion. My dish coworker rented the movie on his Blockbuster @Home account and I thought it would be a chick flick, but surprisingly, it was perfect for helping me think about the relationship with my son and me. He was saying how setting up a queue is better than figuring out if the Redbox has something he wants, when his queue can always be full of movies he knows he would like.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Jimmy. That’s an interesting perspective on this movie that makes me want to take another look. It would be nice to use Netflix queues. Unfortunately Netflix does not rent DVDs here in Canada, only streaming (and the selection pales in comparison).

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