Movie Review: We Bought A Zoo

Things I thought I knew about We Bought A Zoo from watching the trailer:

  • It’s a family film
  • about a family who just lost their wife/mother
  • and bought a zoo,
  • which is a true story,
  • starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson
  • with some animals
  • who all look very sweet (animals and humans alike)
  • and maybe a little funny.

Things I did NOT know…or certainly expect…until I actually watched We Bought A Zoo:

this is a powerful, funny, emotional, honest, sweet, sad, joyful film, and it’s worth warning you to bring lots and lots of tissues.

The zoo is based on the real-life Dartmoor Zoo and the real-life Benjamin Mee, who found amid personal tragedy the courage to embrace an adventure and bring his family along for the ride.

Mee’s autobiography, We Bought A Zoo, was adapted by Aline Brosh McKenna and directed by Cameron Crowe; the result is a film that tenderly, achingly walks the line between grief and renewal.

I was probably most struck by Matt Damon’s performance as Mee – as an actor he finds a way to portray this man going through some truly pitiful life experiences, while never being pitiful himself. There is never a point at which I felt sorry for Benjamin or felt the film was wallowing in a depressed mire of grief. Although there are heavy themes of loss in the film – of family, of childhood, of comfort and ease – there is also an indefatigable spirit of courage and adventure.

I thought the child actors in the film were fantastic (Maggie Elizabeth Jones as Rosie just killed me, talk about sweetness!), and although I went in feeling cautious about Scarlett Johansson, I thought she did a great job and definitely left some of her “femme fatale” image behind. Thomas Hayden Church provided much of the comic relief in the movie, and Matt Damon was the perfect Everyman to love and cheer for in this story.

True to Cameron Crowe’s movie fingerprint, We Bought A Zoo has an awesome soundtrack that adds a lot to the feel and experience of the film.

There were some aspects of the movie that played a bit to formula – some of the fish-out-of water scenes, some of the odd, eccentric background characters meant to add fill to the story – but for me those moments were redeemed by the intensely honest scenes, especially between Mee and his teenage son. I cried hardest during a scene of them fighting, when the raw emotions of two people just trying to love each other and not knowing how to love each other best really hit home to me. I think parents (especially of teenagers) will really identify with that.

And, of course, the scenes in which Mee remembers and celebrates the memory of his wife were heartbreaking, and joyous at the same time. What he comes to discover is that she is everywhere to him, in every place and every person, and that starting new and moving on doesn’t mean leaving her behind, but inviting her and including her in a new adventure. It was such a powerful component of the story.

What about the zoo? The story of the zoo itself is fun and definitely interesting. But really, it’s just a catalyst to talk about the people, and about the “20 seconds of courage” anyone needs to do something truly amazing with their life.

Helpful information:

  • Release date: December 23
  • Rated PG for language and some thematic elements. About the language: it was just enough to make me a little uncomfortable, considering younger kids might go to watch this movie. And the fact that one of the swear words was said by the 7 year old girl bothered me.
  • I’m not really sure kids younger than 8 will be captivated by this movie. The zoo animals are entertaining, but this is a character-driven story with some heavy themes and storylines. I could see young children quickly losing interest.
  • You can find out more at the official We Bought a Zoo website, or on Facebook, Twitter (#WeBoughtAZoo), and YouTube.

The official trailer:

Disclosure: I was invited to a pre-screening of this film, and a conversation with screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna, which I will post about later. No other compensation was received. All opinions expressed are honest and my own. And if you feel self-conscious at all about crying in public, well…you might just have to get over that if you’re going to see this movie in the theater!