There’s a line spoken by Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) that’s fairly representative of Twentieth Century Fox’s We Bought a Zoo and it goes a little something like this, “…all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally, twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.” This based-on-a-true-story family comedy-drama breathes new life into spontaneity. Afterall, how many people do you know that decided they wanted a fresh start in life so they went out and bought a zoo?
Following the death of his wife, Benjamin Mee (Damon), his son Dylan (Colin Ford) and daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) relocate to the California countryside to start their lives fresh and rediscover happiness. Little do they all know a zoo is in store and the nearest Target is nine miles away! Mr. Mee is then introduced to the existing staff, spearheaded by none other than Scarlett Johansson (as Kelly Foster, the zookeeper). It’s a fun, light-hearted, sincere adventure that entire families and animal enthusiasts can enjoy and it may even make you a little jealous and send you in search of your own zoo to buy.
If there’s one outstanding feature to We Bought a Zoo, it’s the sincerity of the acting. First off, major thumbs up to seven-year old Maggie Elizabeth Jones – she is articulate, charming, intelligent and an absolute joy to watch on the screen. She not only stole every scene she was in but did so in the fairly amazing company of seasoned actors Matt Damon and Scarlett Johannson. Jones’ mini-biography on IMDb says she has a “pure love of life” and “packs an explosive personality,” of which both accounts are evident with her portrayal of Rosie – Jones is purely magnificent. Likewise, Damon handles his role nicely and creates a true identity for Mr. Mee, making him a conflicted father who longs for new beginnings while he loves and clings to his past. Then of course there is Scarlett Johansson whose character gets off to a slow start, but makes audiences come around soon after with her alluring charm and almost rugged look.
With the major props out of the way, We Bought a Zoo isn’t entirely perfect. Sure, it’s a feel-good story that has a heartwarming journey at its core, but it does suffer from the same affliction that plagues many other films (a la The Blind Side). Too many convenient coincidences are lying around and detract from the financial and interpersonal struggles of many of the characters and situations, meaning the formula for a great movie is present, but the personal identifications are somewhat absent. Are movies about people only made about rich people? Certainly not, though it would seem that way. There are too many dotted i’s and crossed t’s – too many perfections – for a movie that should have clearly had more turbulence. For instance, when you’re essentially broke, how convenient is it to find a safe-deposit box with just enough cash flow to help you make it through? Don’t let these minor things deter you though, but just know that some parts of the film may feel a bit cheap and purely for the cliché happy ending.
We Bought a Zoo is rated PG and runs 124 minutes and in case you’re wondering, the zoo in the film (Rosemoor Wildlife Park) is based on the real zoological park in Devon, England named the Dartmoor Zoological Park.