It’s a good thing Matt Damon didn’t succumb to warnings about working with children and animals. Because without Matt Damon, We Bought a Zoo could have been really lame. Instead, it’s a heartwarming family film that manages to tackle some pretty big issues without getting too sappy or sad.

Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a young widower struggling to raise his two kids, Dylan, 14, and Rosie, 7, in the months following his wife’s death. Desperate for a change of scenery and a fresh start, Mee moves the family out of the city and into a fixer-upper in the country that happens to be situated in the middle of a zoo that also needs some major fixer-uppin’.

The zoo has a small but dedicated group of caretakers led by Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johannson). Mee represents their last great hope for restoring the zoo to its original grandeur– or at least bringing it up to code and avoiding closure by an evil (and somewhat cartoonish) state inspector.

Of course, there are many challenges along the way. Mee is still grappling with grief. His teenage son (Colin Ford) is full of angst and anger and oblivious to the doe-eyed advances of Kelly’s niece Lily (Elle Fanning). Mee’s brother Duncan (played with his usual crass wit by Thomas Hayden Church) wants him to cut and run, i.e. “lose the zoo – but keep Kelly”. Time and money are running out. You get the picture.

And then there are the animals – a menagerie that includes a roaming bear, a monkey, an elephant, some snakes, birds, and an aging tiger that has some valuable lessons to impart in his waning days. You can’t help but root for the whole lot of ‘em, even the snakes. And, you can’t help but smile every time young Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) declares “We bought a zoo!!!!” She amps up the movie’s cuteness factor whenever she appears on screen.

Ultimately, as I alluded to before, it is Damon that saves the zoo and the movie. He manages to be adorable and accessible in dare I say, a Clooney-esque sort of way. His portrayal of a journalist-turned-zookeeper is honest and authentic and does great service to a story that is actually based on real-life events. You may even be inspired to quit your day job and go in search of a zoo that needs fixin’. Or at least get a dog.

2 thoughts on “We Bought a Zoo”
  1. Nice review. Without Cameron Crowe on the director’s chair, or the whole cast that this flick assembled, I honestly think this would have been just another cheesy, schmatzly, and way too sentimental pic. However, it’s heart is in the right place and I found myself fairly pleased leaving the theater. Check out my review when you can.

  2. @Dan – Looks like we’re basically on the same page. And I agree about the Elle Fanning role. Her transition from creepy stalker to serious love interest was rather odd!

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