If 30 years ago precocious little Drew Barrymore stole your heart in E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, then you are going to be delighted this Christmas with a dynamo of a 7-year-old actress, Maggie Elizabeth Jones.
In what may be the surprise feel-good movie of the season, We Bought a Zoo, this delightful, 3-foot-10, Atlanta soccer player captivates audiences as Matt Damon’s daughter, Rosie Mee. She brings a sweet, innocent charm to the true story of newspaper reporter and single dad Benjamin Mee, who is battling deep personal despair after the death of his wife – and realizes that he, his second grader and conflicted 14-year-old son Dylan, played by Colin Ford, need a new start away from everything that constantly reminds them of Mom.
Rosie and Dad find the decaying house of their dreams on 18 rolling acres down a dirt road, nine miles from the nearest store … but it comes with baggage: a dilapidated wildlife park closed down by officials – but still the home to a capuchin monkey, a neurotic grizzly bear, porcupines, ostriches, two zebras, a cranky lion, wolves, tortoises, otters, snakes, peacocks and an elderly, dying Bengal tiger.
At first the tale seems hard to believe – how does a journalist adrenaline junkie quit his paying job, then buy a zoo complete with a staff? After all, such wildlife parks constantly have to be creative just to feed their carnivores, much less pay salaries. How does a mourning, unemployed reporter generate cashflow as he deals with his son’s coming of age, his daughter’s innocence and his own deep emptiness?
A hostile USDA inspector shows up for a pre-inspection and dumps on this reeling family new federal rules requiring at least $150,000 of extensive renovations before the park can re-open to paying customers. The grizzly escapes. Dylan unlatches a crate of newly arrived snakes – which also escape. A key staff member leads a mutiny of the remaining skeleton crew, which it turns out work out of their love for the animals and without salaries, receiving only room and board. Even so, the piles of bills push Benjamin toward the edge.
One after another, irresolvable problems mount in this family comedy, climaxing in a screaming match between father and dark young artist son – a scene that brought viewers at a recent screening in cynical New York City to tears.
Completely unpredictable in its story line, the 124-minute We Bought a Zoo defies the skeptical. Expecting a cliched love story between Damon’s character and the beautiful, effervescent zookeeper played by Scarlett Johansson, the viewer instead aches as Damon struggles with the impossible, not the least of which is a dark, adolescent son driven to sketching bloody decapitations.
He and his dreamer father, both teetering on the edge of collapse, finally admit to one another: “I never know what to say to you.” But this film has many such peaks – all which satisfy. Rosie plays midwife to baby peacocks. The sadistic USDA inspector returns. A week of monsoon rains threaten the all-important, make-or-break opening day. Dylan breaks the heart of a bubbly 12-year-old who brings him sunshine, daily sandwiches and teenage angst. Over and over, this film doesn’t disappoint – there is no oh-so-predictable kiddie first-time kiss as Dylan blurts that he loves everything about her.
This film will give anybody but the coldest of heart the warm fuzzies.
And at the center is a charming seven-year-old actress who makes us relax and want to believe – as she deals with silly, delightful second-grader realities such as there is no Easter bunny. Little Miss Maggie Elizabeth Jones as Rosie possesses cute charm, sharp intelligence and a delightful love of life. She packs an explosive personality into this role of an outgoing, articulate little girl with a big heart for her hurting daddy. Damon took a big risk playing opposite such a little scene-stealer in this story of hope and new beginnings – this tale of losing someone you truly love and accepting that there is no moving on. Instead, we continue to live, finding joy even though the emptiness will never be filled.