Movie Review: We Bought a Zoo (2011)

Family fare with a Waltonian pickmeup _ 8/10
Review by Brian Wright

We Bought a ZooBenjamin Mee: You know, sometimes 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.

Lily Miska: [to Kelly during the opening of the zoo] If you had to choose between people and animals, who would you pick?
[Kelly doesn’t answer]
Lily Miska: Me, too. People!

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Book by Benjamin Mee
Screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna
Directed by Cameron Crowe

Matt Damon … Benjamin Mee
Scarlett Johansson … Kelly Foster
Thomas Haden Church … Duncan Mee
Colin Ford … Dylan Mee
Maggie Elizabeth Jones … Rosie Mee
Angus Macfadyen … Peter MacCready
Elle Fanning … Lily Miska
Patrick Fugit … Robin Jones
John Michael Higgins … Walter Ferris

How many of you watched The Waltons, a TV series on CBS that aired from 1971 thru 1981, that described the lives and trials of a family living in the 1930s thru early WW2 on a farm in Virginia? Well, it’s definitely a Baby Boomer sort of experience. When it was recommended to me at the age of 20-something, I thought, “You have to be kidding, I’m a hotshot urbane Motor City man on the move; why watch a bunch of hicks struggling to make ends meet in Roosevelt’s Depression?” Ah, the sensitivity of youth!

Then one Thursday night, I believe it was, with nowhere to go, I tune in John Boy and the crew: thirty minutes into the program I’m glued to the TV like a two-year-old kid hearing a bedtime story. At 45 minutes, my heart is in my throat. And by the time the show’s over, I’ve had what I would later learn to call a ‘peak experience’… but not the kind you feel in a race car or in the throes of passion, no, more like a living milestone: birth, death, graduation, marriage, friendship, Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. The kind where you feel deep and quiet and resolved inside, that ordinary people are things quite wonderful and so are you.

We Bought a Zoo has a couple of moments like the Waltons’ peak quality, almost despite itself. But, candidly, any specialness of this movie lies between the lines: Man, Benjamin-not-Ben Mee (Matt Damon), loses wife and struggles with unbearable depression; cute three-year-old daughter, Rosie Mee (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), provides positive vibes; obnoxious 12-year-old son, Dylan Mee (Colin Ford), is one sketch away from the funny farm; man’s comic-relief brother, Duncan Mee (Thomas Haden Church), advises a change of scenery; man looks for new home in the country. Benjamin feels the move to rural California may be just what the doctor ordered, for himself, for obnoxious son, and for lovable daughter.

The catch to purchasing the new Big Casa is that the buyer must also agree to buy the attached zoo. It takes Benjamin a few conversations with the realtor and brewskis with Brother Duncan, then some discovery steps into the actual zoo part of the property, but it’s thumbs up. The zoo has gone dormant, with a skeleton crew remaining to supervise the small cast of animals—including tigers, a lion, exotic birds, snakes, grizzly bear, and so on. Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) is the energetic young director who’s more or less at the end of her rope with all the responsibilities of caring for the critters with little hope that anyone will come to save them.

Plotwise there’s this huge barrier of an arrogant, nitpicking state inspector, Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins), who goes out of his way to disqualify the premises. He especially likes to pull out his phallic battery-powered tape measure and send the tape out to get the lengths of protection moats and barriers, that sort of thing. [One member of the crew, Peter MacCready (Angus Macfadyen), always swears he’s going to kill Ferris the next time he sees him.] You can see the broad brush of the ultimate resolution point to which the drama must lead; Benjamin’s interactions with Kelly, the crew, his children, and the animals show more and more commitment to breathe life into the enterprise—even with expenses he didn’t count on.

Yah, sure, We Bought a Zoo is an old-time Disney movie, and I must say that director Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) seems to lack the energy or drive to rise above the mostly pedestrian screenplay. [Screenwriter McKenna has a good credit on her resume, too (The Devil Wears Prada), but this tale of troubled man among the innocent animals left me, well, cool, for the most part.] The actors save the film: yes, Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson, predictably so, but Elle Fanning truly stands out. She conveys a unique exuberance as a young teen, she becomes a willing beacon of joy to disturbed Son of Benjamin.

My appreciation of this film is eclectic, perhaps watching it again the focus will improve. Withal, it’s a decent down-to-earth (true) story that will stir you in places. The chief Walton moment for me arrives when the families come to visit. One realizes how important the lives of animals are to the lives of people, and how we grow and gain Being as we care for other sentient creatures. Some of Benjamin’s nonhuman charges are integral to the working out of the human story, they become family to the zoo people… and to the viewers. Definitely a pleasure, and worth seeing again. It’s a life-affirming, and a people-affirming movie.

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