We Bought a Zoo

Rating:

Daddy Damon

Main Cast:  Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Hayden Church

Director: Cameron Crowe

I have a child who loves animals.  I’m pretty sure that one day his home will resemble a petting zoo.  When the movie We Bought a Zoo came out it immediately went on my Netflix queue – some films are simply made for my family.

Matt Damon stars as Benjamin Mee in this based-on-real-life story of a man and his two children who leave the big city in search of a place to make new memories some six months after the death of his wife, their mother.  They stumble upon what seems like the perfect place – lots of land out in the country, a great house and a new beginning.  But there’s a catch – the property just happens to be a working zoo and under the stipulations of the sale must remain so.  Just like the title – they really do buy a zoo.

It isn’t a large zoo, but it’s large enough to require a staff and a lot of money if it’s ever going to be able to open again and allow Benjamin to recoup some of his investment.  He meets his head zookeeper (Scarlett Johansson) and the rest of his motley staff and they set about bringing the rundown property up to the exacting standards of the zoo inspector.

It’s a cute idea, but hardly original at its core.  Grieving widower takes on challenge to overcome loss and learns valuable lessons in the process.  Yet, We Bought a Zoo is ridiculously charming in its execution.  Matt Damon is so sad and trying so hard to be a good father – he’s given good dialogue and carries the emotional burden of the role beautifully.  It’s a great part for him, something that proves he can do more than grunt his way through an action movie.

Supporting him is perhaps the single cutest child actress I’ve ever seen.  Maggie Elizabeth Jones, playing seven-year-old daughter Rosie, is absolutely precious.  She’s a little bit precocious at times, but it’s played as silliness rather than true, annoying perceived maturity.  Mostly she’s allowed to be a little girl and you feel like the camera is actually catching her in unguarded moments of pure joy as she deals with the animals and staff.  Colin Ford had a less enviable role as surly teen Dylan, but he does a nice job, being angry and sad and transparently uncool, despite all attempts otherwise.

Scarlett Johansson is not my favorite actress, but I liked her here.  The role doesn’t call for a tarted up vixen and she handles herself well even without tight pants and lots of cleavage.  I would say this bodes well for her career as she begins to age out of the slutty roles that have been her bread and butter for so long.  Given a chance, she can actually play a character.  Her fellow staff members provide lots of local color – handyman Patrick Fugit (who also starred in director Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous) with a monkey always on his shoulder, hard drinking Angus Macadyen, bookkeeper Carla Gallo (who you’ll recognize as Daisy Wick from Bones), Elle Fanning as the farm girl who supplies Dylan with his first taste of romance.   Thomas Hayden Church is the skeptical brother who thinks the zoo is a foolish notion.

The setting is pretty wonderful.  It’s hard to tell just how much was filmed in one location, but director Cameron Crowe does a great job of giving the impression of something akin to a small village with a store, pub and the wildlife preserve (or, as we call it, the zoo).  The animals are fun and the interactions between man and animal stand in for all sorts of inner conflict, especially for the grieving Benjamin.

Overall, We Bought a Zoo isn’t revolutionary.  But, being based on a true story, extremely well acted and conceived, it’s really very touching.  I cried more than once as Benjamin struggled with his grief and giggled along with his adorable daughter as she reveled unselfconsciously in the absolute joy of owning this amazing place.  It’s a classic underdog tale with a few twists, one that I thoroughly enjoyed.  4 stars out of 5.

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