Every child loves going to the zoo, but would you purchase one and live in it with your kids, while working day and night to rebuild and maintain it? Of course, you wouldn’t, but one father unexpectedly did—and saved the animals, his family, and himself. We Bought a Zoo is based on the remarkable and compelling true story of the Mee family, who bought and refurbished the Dartmoor Zoological Park in England’s countryside. Though the film—based on Benjamin Mee‘s memoir and adapted for the big screen by co-writer-director Cameron Crowe—differs from the actual tale (Such as moving the setting from England to southern California), both Hollywood and real life reflect the incredible spirit, values of family, friendship, love, and moving forward, and good times and caring for animals in this story.
Matt Damon plays Ben, the father to early adolescent Dylan (Colin Ford) and seven-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). The family is still coping with the death of Katherine, Ben’s wife and the children’s mother, six months after the fact. Wanting to finally move forward and pursue new opportunities for himself and his kids, Ben quits his journalist job and packs the house up to move to the countryside—even after knowing that his perfect new dream home is also home to hundreds of wild animals. Despite lacking the professional experience, he bravely leads the existing staff, including Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) and her cousin Lily (Elle Fanning), in the revival of the zoo. However, as Ben realizes his dream, he faces dissent from his brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church) and Dylan. Meanwhile, the staff must deal with an uppity investigator (John Michael Higgins) who may make it so that the results of their hard labor are not seen by the public.
We Bought a Zoo is representative of a truly enjoyable, hilarious, and heartfelt film for a general audience. While one or two points don’t exactly hit the right spots, the imperfections can be overlooked, and it’ll be easy especially with the gorgeous shots of the scenery and every animal that you can meet at an actual zoo, from brown bears and lions, to ducks, snakes, and porcupines. There’s also the captivating worldly score composed by Jon Thor Birgisson, which perfectly accommodates the exotic yet homely landscape and can further entrance the audience. But on a deeper level, the stories and the interactions between humans and animals alike strike chords. One way where the screenplay really excels in is demonstrating how each of the Mees deal with Katherine’s loss and the move to the zoo. As the patriarch, Ben’s grief is somewhat evident in the beginning of the film, when he and Duncan pass by the cafe where Ben first met Katherine and he can’t bring himself to go inside. It starts to become concealed as Ben throws himself into his newfound dedication towards rebuilding the zoo but dealing with his son’s grief—Who’s angry about leaving his friends behind and has expressed his feelings through disturbing artwork, causing concern amongst his old teachers—cracks him open. He does stay strong for Rosie though, whose perspective is whimsical and innocent and not thinking so much about her mother being gone but rather in a much better place, as all children are told when a loved one passes on.
All of these emotions are further felt by the performances. Damon and Ford are a believable hot-and-cold father-son duo—their tense emotional sparks fly everywhere until they gather in the center. Ford also bides well with Fanning, as Dylan and Lily share an awkward but very sweet flirtation throughout the film (Lily woos him by bringing sandwiches to him at the same time every afternoon). But aside from the animals, the most surprising scene-stealer comes in the form of the child star playing little Rosie. For being so minuscule in size and age, Jones packs a huge impression with confidence, charm, and sass beyond her years, all while still being somehow irresistible. As the A-list female lead, Johansson deserves credit despite the role being secondary and therefore somewhat limited: Yes, she obviously does lose the glam, but more importantly, she shows she’s a good choice for portraying a character who’s knowledgeable, passionate, and caring about her work with animals and the animals themselves, and in making sure everyone else does their share. The supporting [human] cast—Church, Higgins, the rest of the zoo staff, and J.B. Smoove as the Mees’ chatterbox realtor—contributes to the overall lively vibe and for comic relief too. There are also lots of memorable moments featuring the critters.
The humor is well-executed and not super corny. It sometimes even comes unexpectedly. It reaches its full potential and balances out the underlying tragic premise and the sadder moments, though it’s such good-quality humor at times that you have to remember the film’s a drama too. The things bringing in the giggles actually felt like it was in PG-13 territory, mostly with the dialogue sometimes. Even without it, adults will still appreciate the film and even with it, it’s still appropriate for the children. No matter how old you are, We Bought a Zoo caters to anyone who loves the beautiful creatures of the world, adorable and sappy stories, and any reason to smile. This family feature definitely has the makings of a nice Christmas gift.