We Bought a Zoo

What It Is

“My dad is a writer who specializes in adventure,” announces seven-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) at the beginning of We Bought a Zoo. The movie underlines her pride in her father with shots of him at work, interviewing dictators and flying through hurricanes (even as it also makes a little fun of him, as his interviews include questions like, “What’s your favorite movie?”). At the same time, these early scenes reveal that Benjamin doesn’t spend much time at home, a habit that changes when his wife, Katherine (Stephanie Szostak) dies of cancer.

It turns out that Rosie’s introduction is more of a flashback, for when Cameron Crowe’s movie actually starts, she, her dad, and her brother Dylan (Colin Ford) are in the midst of struggling with their loss. While Rosie tries to remember her mom and imagines her in heaven, Dylan, being 14, is less willing to accept his new situation. Angry at the world, he’s especially resentful when his father makes a major decision without consulting his children. This occurs when Benjamin, in search of a new house (in part because Dylan has been expelled from his school), rather impulsively buys a fixer-upper: it has 18 acres of great wide lawn and beautiful interior spaces, and oh, yes, it comes with a zoo.

Specifically, it’s a functioning though temporarily closed zoo, with llamas, snakes, tigers, and bears, as well as a staff of mostly young and underpaid caretakers. These include the very sincere zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), who warns Benjamin that he may not know quite what he’s getting into. His older brother, an accountant named Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), is even more emphatic about trying to convince Benjamin to do something else with his money, his children, and his new life. Benjamin, however, keeps telling himself he’s an adventurer, while you see he’s also something of a romantic, repeatedly smitten by small moments, as when he spots Rosie playing with the peacocks and laughing out loud for the first time in months. “We love complicated, right?” he asserts, in hopes that he might convince himself as he signs the mortgage.

The film follows this new adventure, as Benjamin must learn how to manage the zoo’s finances, keep his crew content and animals alive, and also prepare the zoo’s broken gates and worn out equipment for an inspection before its scheduled reopening in a few months. This trumped-up time frame involves a cartoonishly meticulous inspector (John Michael Higgins), engaged in a running feud with one of Benjamin’s employees, the equally cartoonish blusterer Peter (Angus Macfadyen). Neither of these characters is quite as ridiculous, however, as Robin (Patrick Fugit), who literally appears in each of his scenes with a monkey on his shoulder.

The zoo workers plainly have a shared goal in mind — they want to make the place successful, to stay employed if nothing else. Rosie accepts this as a great new experience, but Benjamin has a hard time convincing Dylan to pitch in. Missing his mom, his friends back in the city, and any sense that his world is stable or his future secure, Dylan complains and acts out, but to no avail. “Why did you buy this place?” he asks his father, who answers, “Why not?”

This might serve as something of a mantra for the film, as Benjamin remains determined to fix the zoo, fix his family, and of course, fix himself. As he negotiates his present — a series of small or large crisis (money shortages, sick animals, Dylan’s rebellion) — he also comes to terms with his past with Katherine and looks forward to his future with his kids... and, the film intimates, with the lovely Kelly.

Why It’s Fun

Elle Fanning is one major reason that this film is fun. Again, she turns in a perfect performance, this time as Kelly’s sweet younger cousin Lily, who takes a shine to the miserable Dylan and eventually wins him over, in spite of his best angsty-boy efforts to be mean to her.

The animals are certainly fun to watch, though they receive precious little screen time aside from a stunty escape by a bear (which grants Benjamin the chance to behave boldly and impress his employees) and a long sad end-of-life for an aging tiger (Benjamin spends lots of time trying to cajole the animal into living, a reminder that he spent long hours at his wife’s bedside).

Too often, though, the movie’s tone is uneven, sometimes very feel-good and even goofy, and other times very sad and serious. The range is fine, but the turns are abrupt.

Who’s Going To Love It

The movie may appeal to readers of the memoir on which it’s based, written by the real-life Benjamin Mee. But the movie’s wandering focus suggests that it’s left out or rearranged portions of the book. Chief among these changes is the relocation of the zoo from Dartmoor, England, to Southern California (where the weather, at least until one climactic day, is presumably sunnier).

Pop music fans (or viewers familiar with director Cameron Crowe’s other films, which often focus on pop music) will feel alternately pleased and bored by the music in this movie. The soundtrack is eclectic, full of pop tunes by artists like Bob Dylan and My Morning Jacket, as well as earnestly perky compositions by Jónsi. But it is eventually as sentimental, convenient, and changeable as the plot turns: a step forward comes after a setback, an explosion of frustration is followed by a heartfelt reconciliation, without much attention to transitions.

What To Be Aware Of

A couple of scenes take place in a bar, and one character gets very drunk (he’s apparently Scottish, so the drinking takes on a bit of a stereotypical angle).

Minor language is muttered at moments of duress, including “s**t” and "d**n.” One of Benjamin’s team members calls someone else a “d**k.”

The film returns repeatedly to the family’s loss. As a plot point, this makes sense, as the relationships among the father and two kids are complicated by Katherine’s death, but it makes for some rough emotional going on occasion, as when Benjamin spends long minutes looking at photos of her on his MacBook Pro, or remembers, near film’s end, how he met her, literally performing the memory for his children in a supposedly uplifting sequence that is also a decidedly odd mix of grief and joy. It’s not that such emotional complexities concerning the death of a loved one aren’t true to life. It’s that the film treats these complexities simplistically.

A couple of angry and tearful exchanges between Benjamin and Dylan are mildly upsetting. This is in part because Matt Damon is so convincing as the father trying so hard to maintain control in a series of terrible situations.

The dying tiger ends up being a focus for Benjamin and Dylan, a storyline that’s inevitably sad even as it brings father and son together.

See-It-Again Points

5 out of 10

Film Information

We Bought a Zoo
Director: Cameron Crowe
Cast: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Patrick Fugit, Colin Ford, Elle Fanning, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, John Michael Higgins, Angus MacFadyen, Peter Riegert, Stephanie Szostak, J.B. Smoove
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Year: 2011
Rated: PG
US Premiere: December 23, 2011
UK Premiere: March 16, 2012
Official Website
Official Trailer
Movie Pictures

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