This is a good, old-fashioned family movie grounded in Matt Damon’s best-ever performance, inspired by the real-life story of a young widower who, without knowing a lot about animals or running a business, impulsively decided to buy a zoo.
Benjamin Mee (Damon) is a reporter still mourning the loss of his wife. His young daughter Rosie (the very gifted and almost impossibly adorable Maggie Elizabeth Jones) is sad. His teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford) is angry and sad. When Mee’s editor tries to reassign him, Mee realizes that the family needs something completely different. And there is not much as different as a zoo. At first Dylan is even angrier. He has already lost his mother and now he has lost everything else that is familiar to him. And the zoo, which has been closed down will be very expensive to get into operating condition. It makes no sense, as Mee’s practical brother (Thomas Hayden Church) keeps reminding him. But after so much loss, Mee needs to feel that he can help something come alive.
The animals are cared for by Scarlett Johansson, looking sensational without make-up, as Kelly the zookeeper. Mee survived a lot of dangerous situations as a journalist, covering dictators and hurricanes, but now he must be a participant, not an observer, and people, animals, and his family are depending on him. Fortunately, he is handy with tools and has a fix-it frame of mind. Unfortunately, that does not work with teenagers. But Dylan is befriended by Kelly’s niece, played by Elle Fanning, who shows herself already a masterful actor by creating a distinctly different character from her equally sensitive performance earlier this year in “Super 8.”
This could easily have been sit-com-ish or corny — there is a persnickety inspector who has to sign off on the zoo before it can open and a group of quirky but lovable staffers, a mostly-humorous search for an escaped animal, and a discreet but sad farewell to one of the big cats. But director Cameron Crowe (“Jerry Maguire”), who co-wrote the script with “The Devil Wore Prada’s” Aline Brosh McKenna, makes it work with the help of a superb soundtrack by Jónsi. And Damon’s performance centers the story with such presence and commitment that even viewers who pride themselves in being impervious to the charms of animals and children will find themselves melting.
Parents should know that this film includes sad off-screen deaths of a human and an animal, some mild peril, unhappy family confrontations, social drinking, and mild crude language. Parents of younger children should know that in this film a child learns the truth about the Easter bunny.
Family discussion: Why did Benjamin quit his job? Why was Dylan angry? How did Benjamin earn the trust of the zoo employees? What difference can 20 seconds of insane courage make for you?
If you like this try: Benjamin Mee’s book, We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo, and the 200 Wild Animals that Changed Their Lives Forever and visit a zoo!