Movie Mom

Movie Mom

We Bought a Zoo

posted by Nell Minow
Lowest Recommended Age:4th - 6th Grades
MPAA Rating:Rated PG for language and some thematic elements
Profanity:Some mild crude language, s-word
Alcohol/Drugs:Some drinking
Violence/Scariness:Sad offscreen deaths of parent and animal, some mild peril
Diversity Issues:None
Movie Release Date:December 23, 2011
DVD Release Date:April 2, 2012

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!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment mom

    would have been the perfect family movie should the ugly language been left out. ruined it for me.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Mark

    We regularly read the reviews here to check the appropriateness of movies for our family but we have to say that we felt a bit let down by this review after seeing the movie. In particular, two points should have been noted besides the language used in the movie that is billed as a family movie. First, the movie “lets the cat out of the bag” about the Easter Bunny. Second, some of the images are quite disturbing for kids, particularly the beheading drawing shown that gets the boy expelled from school. This is graphic enough to bother even kids that are in the Lowest Recommended Age of 4th-6th grade. Hope this helps some other parents!

    • Nell Minow

      Thanks very much, Mark — I should have noted both. Much appreciated.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Ridan Bemensal

    Shit, bullshit, and asshole are not mild. These words, plus the sexually suggestive line about “taking one for the team”, were enough for me. I and my 13-year-old got up and left. I’m totally surprised you didn’t flag any of this junk with stronger warnings. I’d say no one under 15 or 16 should be allowed in. I’m not a prude. It’s a question of age-appropriateness.

    • Nell Minow

      Thanks for the comment, Ridan Bemensal. I am sorry to say that the words you list are now considered “mild” and thus get a PG rating, not even a PG-13. As I have explained elsewhere, my use of the term “mild” means words that are generally heard on broadcast television. I appreciate your efforts to be careful about the language your child hears and if you want to check out the content of a movie in more detail I suggest the website of my friend Jim Judy,, which lists every objectionable word in each release.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Justine

    Don’t forget the mention of “still believes in the Easter Bunny”…ugh…wish I had know and we would not have seen the movie.

    • Nell Minow

      Thanks, Justine, I’ve added a warning in the review. This is one reason I recommended the movie for 4th grade and up.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment monkie

    I was considering this movie for my 8 and 10 year old boys… glad I checked here first. It’s getting really hard to find movies that are “safe” these days when everything gets the same rating, no matter how objectionable. We used to be safe just going to the G-rated movies, but since now even the movies geared toward little ones (e.g. Tangled) are going PG, we’ve come to consider PG to be “okay.” Not so. The language in this movie would be totally inappropriate for my 8 year old. Do they really say these words on commercial TV now? Yikes!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment JohnGriffin

    You must be kidding me, you call yourself moviemom? This movie is totally inappropriate for kids and contains foul language including dick, a@shole, ass, hell, damn and sexual innuendos not to mention the obsession with death. It also reveals the Easter Bunny is not real for God’s sake and you find this acceptable? You need a different line of work. Probably the most egregious film I have ever seen marketed toward children. We finally walked out of it.

    • Nell Minow

      Mr. Griffin, as you can see from my review, I do not recommend it for young children — I recommend it for 4th graders and older, who all know about the Easter bunny already. And I make it clear that there is some bad language and that the plot focuses on a family coping with the very sad loss of a parent. The grade reflects the overall merits of the film, not its appropriateness for small children. Each family has to make that decision for themselves. not based on the marketing but on research, and the information I provide for parents is designed to help them make those decisions based on what suits their family and their values. I am sorry your family had a bad experience but if you had read my review you would not have gone to the movie.

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