Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) lost his wife to cancer recently and his son, Dylan (Colin Ford), always in trouble, is finally expelled from his high school. Benjamin sees these events as the indicator that his life needs to change. He decides to move his little family, including seven-year old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and their faithful beagle, from his house of pained memories to somewhere new and fresh. New and fresh it is when the Mee kids learn from their dad that “We Bought a Zoo.”
Cameron Crowe has not made a feature film since his ill-received “Elizabethtown” in 2005 and it is nice to see the writer-director return to lighter comedy, like “Jerry Maguire,” with the charming true story of the Mee family and their titular acquisition. Matt Damon teams with a fine ensemble cast led by Scarlett Johansson as Kelly Foster, the head zookeeper who, with her depleted staff, keeps the animals alive and healthy. But, Ben soon discovers that to save the zoo and its exotic creatures is going to take his every resource – mental, physical and, most importantly, financial.
The story unfolds simply with the viewer following the life of bereaving Benjamin as he copes with the loss of his wife, Katherine (Stephanie Szostak), and raising his two kids. Problems with Dylan and need to protect Rose prompt Ben to finally make the move. He challenges his realtor, Mr. Stevens (J.B. Smoove), to find them a new home, but Ben is never satisfied with what is shown. That is, until he comes across a fixer-upper in the country. He immediately agrees to buy the place but Stevens tells Ben the one condition for the sale to happen: he must also take on the dilapidated zoo run by the previous owners.
Ben is enchanted with the idea (talk about a brand new beginning) and little Rosie could not be more thrilled with all of her new “pets.” Only Dylan, estranged from his friends in the big city, resents the change – until he meets Kelly’s pretty 13-year old cousin, Lily (Elle Fanning). Then, things do not seem so bad for the teenager. Ben, though, starts to feel the strain made by the flood of bills to be paid just to maintain the status quo of the zoo. Never mind the cost to qualify for a permit to reopen the zoo under the critical, uber-strict government inspector, Walter Ferris (John Michael). Things look bad for the Mee family, the struggling keepers and their animal wards, until…
As one should expect from a source material with the title We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo and the 200 Wild Animals That Changed their Lives Forever (by Benjamin Mee), Crowe and company give us a feel good family flick that is sure to please the holiday crowd and beyond. Acting is solid with stars Damon and Johansson ably supported by Thomas Hayden Church as Ben’s cynical and funny brother, Duncan, and the off-beat zoo staff – Angus Macfadyen, Patrick Fugit and Carla Gallo. The animals, of course, are the real stars and oft times steal the show.
I love family movies that do not cater to kids or talk down to the adult viewers. “We bought a Zoo” is an intelligent, nicely crafted dramedy that garners both sympathy and laughs. I give it a B+.
Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is having a difficult time adjusting to life after the loss of his wife to cancer. Left with teenaged son Dylan (Colin Ford, TV's 'Supernatural') and the much younger Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, 2011's "Footloose"), Mee engages realtor Mr. Stevens (J.B. Smoove, "The Sitter") to find them a fresh start. What he never expected was to find himself saying "We Bought a Zoo."
Cowriter (with Aline Brosh McKenna, "The Devil Wears Prada")/director Cameron Crowe ("Almost Famous") is back six years after the failure of his 2005 "Elizabethtown" with this well cast, sweet family film. If at first "We Bought a Zoo" doesn't seem like it fits into the Crowe oeuvre, just like in "Say Anything" a young man finds love with a woman from a different upbringing and as in "Almost Famous," a man blossoms into his calling. For those who read Benjamin Mee's book, don't expect a faithful retell - Crowe's moved the true life setting of England to California and he and McKenna have used a very light touch transforming events from the novel, sparing his audience the death of Mrs. Mee (Benjamin's actual wife had a firm hand in the development of their zoo before her passing) and the more rigorous details of zoo administration.
For all those who would submit Tom Hanks as the modern day Jimmy Stewart, I counter with Damon who's all that plus sex appeal. This grounded American actor classes up any production he's in and he's just right as the somewhat naive father struggling to make a new life for his family in the aftermath of devastating loss. After a strong early career, Scarlett Johansson has slid into lazy roles as the femme fatale in super hero and period films so it's a surprise to see her give an effective performance as a hard working zoo keeper. She's the one who reminds Mee after his rather clueless morale speech that what appears as an adventure to him is of far more importance to the staff and habitants of Rosemoor Wildlife Park who face lost jobs, no income and, in the animals case, possible destruction.
As in the novel, the zoo staff and the Mee family must find common ground, but Crowe emphasizes the family healing, bridging the two symbolically with the zoo's old lion who Benjamin must come to grips with letting go. Dylan, sulking over his loss of friends and urban cool, is somewhat oblivious to the charms of farm girl Lily Miska (Elle Fanning, "Super 8") until, that is, she wises up and stops coming 'round. The charming Rosie represents the joy of communing with nature while Benjamin's brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church, "Sideways") supplies the financial voice of reason, at least until he lays eyes on Kelly (Johansson).
Where the novel took money, maintenance, animal control and permits seriously, Crowe and McKenna go the comic route and that's not a bad thing. Instead of a wild cat escape drawing sharpshooters and news teams, Crowe chooses to surprise Benjamin at a town stop light with an unexpected visit from his Buster the Bear, staffer Peter MacCready (Angus Macfadyen, "Braveheart," "Saw"s III and IV) has an amusing hatred for the zoo inspector and Benjamin learns that his animals aren't all about cute while fixing fence posts. Still, the script could have been tightened for the adult audience who might wonder why Katherine Mee would rely on a chance accident to gift her husband with an unexpected financial cushion. The climactic zoo opening at film's end reflects great nostalgia for good old fashioned neighborliness and old timey fun.
Production design is simple, befitting a rural animal park over a more modern zoo environment. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto ("Babel," "Brokeback Mountain") uses a plain, straightforward style to capture the action. Original music by Sigur Ros front man Jon Thor Birgisson shimmers like sugary sunlight, fitting this family film's emotional tenor. "We Bought a Zoo" isn't among Crowe's best work, but it's a solid charmer that doesn't rely on Hollywood flash, gimmick, or poop jokes.
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