Director Cameron Crowe's "We Bought a Zoo" is the fictionalized retelling of Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a successful journalist suddenly becoming a single father following the death of his wife.
His young teen son, Dylan, has turned to morbid artwork and stealing at school. His daughter, Rosie, grows up quickly as the "lady of the house," preparing lunch for herself and her older brother for school and helping her father with his new responsibilities. After quitting his job as a reporter, Benjamin decides his family needs a fresh start. He takes his life savings and buys an old zoo on the outskirts of the city.
The Mees move on-property and learn from the zoo staff, led by Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), how to care for the animals. The zoo's reopening depends on approval by the local city inspector (John Michael Higgins), who takes pleasure in finding faults and orders hosts of "improvements" before he will sanction a reopening. Meanwhile, Mee is running out of cash and has to decide whether the emotional strain on his family is worth sticking through to completion, or if he should walk away and start again somewhere else.
I never saw "Zoo" in theaters, and I did not expect to love this movie. But I did. Damon as Mee is the film's anchor and carries the burden well. There's a moment when Benjamin is watching Rosie play with a muster of peacocks (her signature animal) and without words, we watch him see the wife he lost in his daughter. There are multiple instances like that throughout the movie that squeeze your heart and really pull you into this family. Other times, the "geeky dad" comes out when Benjamin obliviously says just the wrong thing to embarrass his son, and Damon aces it without being too goofy.
I was skeptical when I saw ScarJo was playing Kelly, the head Zookeeper. However, as a light love interest and sometimes foil for Damon, she was spot-on. They kept her appropriately unglamorous, with little makeup, modest necklines and a bad haircut. Her passion for the animals Kelly is entrusted with is organic. Thomas Haden Church as Benjamin Mee's brother and inner voice steals every scene he's in, which is probably why he's only in half the movie. Elle Fanning, my favorite Fanning, is adorable as Kelly's home schooled tween cousin who works at the zoo and has a crush on Dylan.
The DVD has a couple of neat extras. The "It's a Zoo" short feature introduces us to the animals used in the film, from the perspective of the trainers and the actors. It is absolutely delightful to watch the lion, tigers, peacocks and monkey fraternize with the actors and trainers.
It's also beautifully photographed with vibrant colors and plenty of steady shots to display the animals in all their majesty. It took me back to being 12 years old and wanting to grow up and work with large cats for movies ... for about six months, until I decided to become a trapeze artist instead (prior to discovering my paralyzing fear of heights).
I was disappointed that there wasn't a featurette about the real zoo on which the movie is based, Dartmoor Zoological Park in Devon, England. There was very little discussion even in the commentary track of the film of the actual story on which "We Bought a Zoo" is based. However, you can go to the zoo's website and learn about the real Benjamin Mee and Dartmoor Zoo. There's also an entertaining director's commentary track and a short animated feature from the Ice Age franchise.
"We Bought a Zoo" is a sweet story I would feel comfortable watching with both my mother and my little nieces. There's a mild amount of language in a couple of scenes, no animal rights extremist sucker-punches, some emotional discussions about losing a parent, and the movie could have benefited from a tidier ending. But overall, "We Bought a Zoo" is a treat and the perfect Family Movie Night choice.