We Bought a Zoo is a clumsy sermon on love and loss
Starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson. Rated PG.
Zero ethical questions about the very existence of animal prisons are raised in We Bought a Zoo, although the film does have some good qualities to offer moviegoing families. Aside from some hip musical choices (the main composer is Sigur Rós’s Jónsi), the best part is Matt Damon’s solid performance as Benjamin Mee, a journalist who loses his beloved wife and moves into an unexpectedly wild Southern California exurb with an angry son (Colin Ford) and a terminally cute daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones).
Their new, if rundown, home has a built-in family, including a head zookeeper (a rather stiff Scarlett Johansson) prepped to be Ben’s sassy new love interest, a 13-year-old sweetheart for the boy (Elle Fanning), plus a whole lot of needy critters in a park called Rosemoor. Considering the amount of life-affirming stuff packed into this two-hour sermon on love and loss, though, neither people nor animals are individualized in meaningful ways. And the tale didn’t really need a villainous government inspector (John Michael Higgins). Oh, those accursed safety regulations!
Clumsily adapted by former wunderkind director Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous) and middlebrow screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna (Morning Glory, The Devil Wears Prada), Zoo is based on the same-named book (as well as a BBC TV series) about running a rural English outpost called Dartmoor. The real-life Mee, just so you know, is a bald Brit who looks like Howie Mandel. He also raised his kids in France and his wife actually died after they bought the zoo—for his mother.
Crowe nicely depicts the female response to his hero’s confusing status as a new widower, but nothing tops what Mee himself told the Guardian about how it happened: “Their sympathy genes went into overdrive and I became the epicentre of a gaggle of empathetic eyes and jutting, proffered breasts.” He also slept with the first au pair who came his way. How come that’s not in the movie?
Watch the trailer for We Bought a Zoo.