We Bought a Zoo
A Nice Family Movie

In 2006, the Mee family purchased the closed-down Dartmoor Zoological Park in England, refurbished it, and reopened the zoo to the public in July 2007.  It is a very nice story that has already inspired a four-part television documentary, and Benjamin Mee, a former journalist, wrote a book about how the experience changed their lives.  Now, their story has inspired Cameron Crowe to return to the director’s chair for the first time since 2005’s Elizabethtown.  The resulting film, We Bought a Zoo, also makes for a nice story; nothing more, nothing less.

The action has been transferred to southern California just a few months after the death of Benjamin Mee’s wife, leaving him to care for their two kids.  His 14-year-old son Dylan doesn’t make that easy, especially when he is expelled from school for stealing.  Benjamin decides the entire family needs a new start and he goes in search of a new home.  He gets more than he bargains for when it turns out that the house of his choosing is actually a closed down zoo, complete with staff and 30 acres full of animals.  Needless to say, this revelation is a thrill for his 7-year-old daughter Rosie.

The zoo offers the family plenty of ways to mend.  Needing to learn how to let go of his late wife, Benjamin finds himself in a similar situation with the zoo’s elder tiger and coming to grips with letting the tiger go may be just the emotional therapy he needs.  It helps, too, that the head zookeeper who comes with their new purchase is none other than Scarlett Johansson.  Speaking of love interests, there is also one for Dylan in the 13-year-old Lily who brings him sandwiches from the park’s restaurant every day when she gets off.  Maybe she can inspire him to draw some friendlier images in his always-present sketchbook that is filled with work that would make Charles Manson proud.

Damon as Mee in We Bought A ZooCameron Crowe was at one time one of the hottest directors in Hollywood, coming off of the critical successes of Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous, but he has only made two movies since and they—Vanilla Sky and Elizabethtown—were each hit pretty hard both in print and at the box-office.  This was to be his big return.  Early buzz had it as an Oscar favorite, but that buzz began to fade as the release date approached.  That’s understandable as it turns out to not be a very good movie… at least, not Oscar good.  It is, however, a very enjoyable movie, a movie that is easy to watch and one that you don’t really want to say anything bad about it.

The actors all fit their roles nicely, starting with Matt Damon as Benjamin.  It is a rather odd role for Damon, who we have gotten used to seeing in roles that you might consider “big.”  We’re not used to seeing him play a simple family man; at least, not without millions of people being killed around him by a deadly virus.  He is good here at the center of a group of oddball characters.

Among the other actors, Elle Fanning stands out as the homeschooled Lily who is a little too excited to get to hang out with Dylan, someone her own age and species.  Thomas Haden Church is also well cast as Benjamin’s older brother Duncan, as the two actors look like they could actually be brothers.  Church does what he has been doing best over the past few years, delivering one-liners with excellent timing.  Finally, there’s Maggie Elizabeth Jones as Rosie.  She plays Rosie as one of those movie kids who is far too smart and logical for her age, but she does it with such cuteness that you don’t really care.

After his hiatus, Cameron Crowe’s return may not be spectacular from a directing standpoint—the pacing is off and the movie doesn’t wrap up when it feels like it should—but there is plenty of evidence that his screenwriting skills have not lost a beat.  I like the way he takes a certain, seemingly simple piece of dialogue from early in the movie and gives it meaning at the film’s conclusion  There’s also some fun with words, although I can think of a few more words I might call the laziest word in the English language than “whatever.”

We Bought a Zoo should work for its target audience, which is families with younger children that would react the same way to finding out that their parents bought a zoo as Rosie: pure glee.

We Bought a Zoo is rated PG for “language and some thematic elements.”  This is a movie made for family viewing and there is very little worth objecting over.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of We Bought a Zoo.