We Bought a Zoo (2011) - A Family Story with Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Matt Damon in We Bought a Zoo

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, it was nice to see her in a role more "cute" than fierce, and her chemistry with Damon is memorable albeit one joined of 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.

(Parental Review: 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.”) 


  1. I need to rent this one -- it does sound cute. :)

  2. This movie looks pretty fun and funny, but after watching Contagious with Matt Damon, I can't stand him with long hair! It just really kinda annoys me. I prefer him with the Jason Bourne super awesome cool dude buzz cut. :D

  3. It WAS a cute one, wasn't it!? I am so glad that you liked it. It was one of my favorites of 2011.

    I think Matt Damon did so well with those kids because he has four of his own =P Scarlett Johannson bugs me, but I didn't hate her in this--and you are right, their moments together were more tender than passionate.

    As to that squitern, she just so happens to be my LEAST favorite, so when I saw her in this film....I groaned. Audibly. In the theatre. That's how much she bugs me =)

  4. Ruth - it is! I really enjoyed this one, and will probably even buy it or ask for it on my b'day - it was sweet. =)


    Rachel - oh, really!? I didn't mind his haircut... but then, watching that movie with Damon may have turned me off of him as an actor: period! Aside from its impressive cast, it looked too depressing. =) Funny thing is, Ben Stiller was also considered for this role but I don't think I'd have liked it half as well had he been cast!

    Yeah, well... it is almost impossible to beat Matt as Bourne, right!?. ;-)

    Ella - yes, it was! Definitely one of my faves from 2011, too! I loved this flick. It was sweet, touching and had such a ring of "truth" (in the father-child scenes) that is isn't easily forgotten.

    Having four kids likely did play a huge role in Damon being so charismatic. I don't mind Johannson as an actress but my mom doesn't like her either. Aw! You don't like Daisy!? I think she is TOO cute. ;)

  5. I thought it was a fun loving film :)

  6. It was, wasn't it, Alycia! I really (really!) enjoyed this one. So cute.

    Thanks bunches for the follow - stop in often! =)

  7. I loved your review! This one has been on my list to watch for a while now! I'm excited to see it!

  8. Thanks, Jennifer! I love movies like this that are so good because they then make it super easy to write about. That was the case with this movie.

    I hope you enjoy this one - it is super sweet. =)

    Glad you stopped in, Jennifer.

  9. This one looks good. Can't wait to watch it. =D

  10. It is, Jen! I would already like seeing it again. =) Enjoy!

  11. I had a friend who went to see it, and she said it was good. That plus your review has me wanting to see it :) Sierra
    Keep Growing Beautiful♥ (Because You Are!)
    Philippians 4:8

  12. I highly recommend this one, Sierra. There are a few flaws in the script but overall, this is a "clean" movie with a good "heart."

    Hope you enjoy if / when you see it. =)

  13. Yay, I'm glad you found this one! I just watched it, too, and found I really enjoyed it. In fact, I share many of your thoughts on it.

  14. I know, right, JR!? I am loving having this great discussion about this particular film because it was really good and sweet and just... overall charming! So happy you enjoyed it, too!

  15. When I saw previews for this movie, my first thoughts were that it would probably be cute but I was in no hurry to see it. That is until Corey and I had our movie weekend and I put it in just to get another one checked off my list.

    I was really surprised. It was definitely cute like I first thought it would be but I think I can now say that it was probably my favorite movie out of all the ones we watched this weekend.
    Based on a memoir by Benjamin Mee, it tells the story of Mee and his family who just moved into a dilapidated zoo. They take on the challenge of repairing the zoo before it's reopening to the public.

    Matt Damon (as Benjamin Mee) was awesome as usual, and Scarlet Johansson (as Kelly Foster) played a very good supporting role in the movie as well. Maggie Elizabeth Jones (as Rosie Mee) was ADORABLE! Just about every time she showed up on screen, I would say, "She is so cute!" She reminds me of my niece. I expect her to be the next Dakota Fanning if she isn't already.

  16. Great summary, Italia!

    You are right: This movie is more than just "cute." I loved it - Maggie was TOO ADORABLE. She really lit up the screen. =)

    This movie = a must-buy film for me.

    Thanks for stopping by - do so again soon. =)


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