Reviewed by Marc Glassman
December 23, 2011
Oscar heat is being generated for Matt Damon, who delivers a charming performance as Benjamin Mee, neophyte zoo owner and single Dad par excellence.
Cameron Crowe’s return to fiction filmmaking is also sparking excitement. The director of Almost Famous and Jerry McGuire hasn’t made a narrative feature since 2005’s Elizabethtown.
Family drama; coming-of-age film; bereavement: human-interest story
The Mee family is barely coping with the death of Elizabeth, particularly Dylan, in his early teens, who is acting out so dreadfully at school, that he gets expelled. Benjamin, formerly a hotshot foreign correspondent and now a single Dad, can’t find anything to write about—and anyway, he’s more concerned about Dylan and young Rosie.
Looking for a new home and a fresh start, Benjamin and Rosie find a zoo on the outskirts of town that is available in an estate sale. Despite Dylan’s lack of enthusiasm, Benjamin buys it—the gorgeous land, the animals—including tigers and elephants–and a motley crew that includes a drunken Scotsman, a beautiful and very committed zoo-keeper named Kelly and her lovely 13-year-old niece, and cook, Lily.
When Benjamin isn’t facing down an escaped grizzly bear or a disgruntled government zoo inspector, he’s coping with endless bills—and his on-going bereavement. Dylan is still trying to shake off his own sense of gloom and ignores Lily’s attempts at friendship.
Summoning all of his resources—and that of his reluctant brother Duncan—Benjamin leads his crew into action. They must get the zoo certified after what will clearly be a tough inspection—and then attract crowds to make it all work again.
Will they succeed? Hey, it’s a Hollywood Christmas movie. Would you bet against them?
Damon is superb as Benjamin; he’s worthy of an Oscar nomination, though probably not a win. Johansson’s role is more that of a character actress than as a conventional love interest; she’s good but not great as a young, smart zookeeper. The rest are fine but hardly sensational apart from Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who is very good as young, levelheaded Rosie.
Crowe keeps the film light despite the sense of bereavement that hangs over the Mee family. He’s always had a feel for comedy—and the moments of fun around the zoo are the best in the film.
Crowe never connects the zoo to the innovative environmental practices that have won the Mee family acclaim in real life. He has “Hollywoodized” the Mees—and may have lost some good things along the way. Still, We Bought a Zoo is a charming film, worth seeing in theatres this Holiday season.