We Bought a Zoo

As the world’s biggest Cameron Crowe fan, sure, I was well-positioned to like his latest feature… But even I was surprised how much I ended up loving it. I’m a big softie, I guess, and this movie played me like a violin.

Matt Damon stars as Benjamin Mee, a recently widowed journalist who decides against all odds to buy a quasi-abandoned zoo in Southern California, along with the 47 species of wild animals that live in it, in order to give his kids a genuine adventure to enjoy and to help them -and himself- in their grieving process.

Sounds far-fetched, but the film is actually an adaptation of “We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo, and the 200 Wild Animals That Change Their Lives Forever,” the memoir of the real-life Benjamin Mee, who actually runs the Dartmoor Zoological Park with his family In England. As you can see, Crowe moved the action to a world he knew better, and you can tell that he must also have poured a lot of his own thoughts and feelings into Mee’s story, ultimately making it as personal as all his other films.

Here’s a film as sentimental as it gets, but also full of life, humor and, naturally, lots of great music. Songs by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Temple of the Dog, My Morning Jacket, Bon Iver and others, but also an amazing original score by Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi which embodies all the wonder and whimsy that define the film. Visually, much of the film is bright and sun-drenched, as most of the action is set outdoors, out in the country, around all those great animals…

Still, this is a story about people first and foremost. Damon delivers one of his most winning performances as a man who decides to be brave and maybe reckless, even though he’s filled with fears and doubts, just for the sake of his kids. You know how Lloyd Dobler said he was “looking for a dare to be great situation” in “Say Anything”? Well, Benjamin Mee has found that situation, and now he has to see if he can live up to it. Sometimes, all it takes is “20 seconds of courage”… And a willingness to say, “Why not?”

Particularly touching is the way he interacts with cheerful daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and moody teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford), but there are also memorable moments involving Benjamin’s no-nonsense brother (Thomas Haden Church), his sexy zookeeper (Scarlett Johansson in a surprisingly grounded performance), and the rest of the colorful zoo staff (Angus Macfadyen, Carla Gallo, Patrick Fugit, Elle Fanning, etc.).

“We Bought a Zoo” is a great family film in the best sense of the term, heartfelt and rewarding every step of the way, up until the Billy Wilder-perfect ending.