Stories that have plots in some way derived of “inspired by true events” can go one of two ways. The first is either more of docu-drama that is far too technical and biographical to be really entertaining, and the second option is an uplifting drama that could inspire its viewer to betterment. This movie is the latter.
He has been on a plane that went straight into the heart of a hurricane, interviewed world leaders in war-torn countries but nothing could prepare Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) for the loss of his beloved wife and the responsibility of raising his two children without Katherine at his side. A year ago the family of four was a happy, typical American family; six months ago they said good-bye to a wife and mother. Now, Benjamin is tired of sympathy. He cannot stomach the attentions he or his children are getting from people who are merely feeling pity for them. His brother, Duncan (Thomas Hayden Church) encourages Benjamin to get out more and “interact” with people but when his fourteen-year-old son (Colin Ford) gets expelled from school after his fourth offense, Benjamin sees that something needs to change. With a fresh start in mind, he and his precocious seven-year-old daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) begin looking at new properties until he finds one that is exactly what his family needs – only problem is, the backyard is literally a zoo!
Dylan is angry about the move and thinks his adventurer dad is crazy to buy a zoo while young Rosie finds happiness and a place where she can feel at home – and best of all, his daughter is laughing again. The Mee’s find the zoo staff knowledgeable and ready to help them along as they learn everything about zoo-keeping. Head zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) befriends the family and is encouraged to see Benjamin has a genuine heart to make the zoo a success while her shy cousin Lily (Elle Fanning) attempts to be friends with Dylan. Even with minor progress behind them, hardships still find Benjamin. Unless the family can band together, their livelihood will be sorely tested.
Seeing this movie when I did almost didn’t happen because the copy I had reserved wasn’t coming in but I nabbed one elsewhere and can only say how glad I am to have seen it! There is a lot to be admired in this film regardless of a premise that seems mediocre and not all that “interesting” when compared to some of the blockbusters that are clamoring for "first place" and our attention. One of the first things I was most impressed with was the script – it is not only funny (more on that later) but also tugs on our heartstrings in a way that still leaves us with a smile at the end result. All of the dialogue – or the majority of it, is written with a family grieving in mind, and that is one of its strengths. The directing is equally dynamic. There are multiple scenes that I loved the set-up of; the simplicity in them is not too sappy but yet has a beautiful familiarity to them – scenes that are reminiscent of realistic life. It is this quality that so endears the film, and connects with its audience.
What helps this along to an extreme that is beautifully portrayed is the acting. Damon is a first-rate versatile actor, and he does not disappoint in this role. Seeing him play a father is one of the best roles he’s had to date – the way he relates to his on-screen children is precious. Then there are the child actors; Colin does an admirable job but it is young Maggie who steals every single frame she is in. I cannot tell you what a doll she was in this role, how sweet, sassy and spot-on perfect she is. You just have to experience it for yourself. She is like a miniature adult who is still an innocent in the best sense of the word. (Many of you may also remember her from Footloose.) Although I don’t clamor to see everything Johansson is in, she is cute in the role and her chemistry with Damon is memorable albeit one made of more tender emotions than “sparks” of romance. (It was also a pleasant surprise to see one of the rotating “squints” from Bones in a supporting role.)
We Bought a Zoo is the surprise movie of the year at my house (yes, I am aware it is only April). My whole family found it precious, and something we all got a chuckle out of. Its true story working idea makes it more endearing than usual but the cast is what pulls it all together. How everything comes together at the end may be a bit of a cliché but for the most part, the movie does not fall into those sorts of traps. Instead it is a pleasant family drama with an ending that doesn’t stop where you think it will. Some may find fault with how it does end because it is more of a what-will-be, than has-been but I took it in stride and accepted it as a promise of a brighter future for a family, healing from grief in a healthy way – and its ending is one you can write yourself. Unless, you have an adverse reaction to zoo animals, see this one. It’s not at all what you might think, definitely a five-star keeper.
(What to know: Rated PG for some mild language [h*ll, da*n, there is a use of Jesus Christ] and crude comments [a man is called a d**k]. There is one or two mild sexual innuendos; Duncan encourages his brother to have a fling with a woman, a man ogles Kelly [another person tells her the man "lusts" her to which she informs she won't take one "for the team"], and there is a nude photo of a pregnant woman [arms strategically placed]. One scene has a bunch of snakes littered across the lawn. Adult characters drink in the evenings but are never depicted as “drunk.”)