A film review by Craig J. Koban January 2, 2012


2011, PG, 124 mins.


Benjamin: Matt Damon / Kelly: Scarlett Johansson / Duncan: Thomas Haden Church / Robin: Jones Patrick Fugit / Dylan: Colin Ford / Lily: Elle Fanning / Peter: Angus Macfadyen

Directed by Cameron Crowe / Written by Aline Brosh McKenna and Crowe, based on the book by Benjamin Mee

Cameron Crowe’s WE BOUGHT A ZOO is a sweet and pleasing film experience.  It certainly does not lack heart or compassion in the right places.  

Yet, the real problem with Crowe’s first feature film in six years (if you exclude his Pearl Jam documentary) is that, despite its inherent warmth and humanity, it just didn't feel dramatically genuine throughout.  It’s easy to label WE BOUGHT A ZOO as a feel-good family drama, which it is, but it’s also mawkishly artificial and mechanically written.  It’s sad, because there are some individual performances contained within that rise far above the formulaic screenplay.  WE BOUGHT A ZOO, as a result, is nothing more than exemplary acted Capra-corn. 

I know.  I know.  The film is based on a true story, and if it weren’t then it would have been an even larger pill to swallow and sit through for over two hours.  There is a man named Benjamin Mee, a former columnist for The Guardian that decided to uproot his family and, yes, buy the rundown Dartmoor Zoological Park in Devon, England that was on the verge of closure.  He would even go on to write a memoir about his exploits at the zoo.  So, the film version of this real story can’t really be criticized for its improbability, but I can criticize the film for what is, no doubt, a serious condensing of the established facts, done to the point where your buy-in to the material begins to free fall. 

Matt Damon – understated and as dependably solid as ever – plays Mee in the film, and as the story begins we see him as a recent widower that is now forced to deal with being an only parent to his children: his seven-year-old daughter, Rose (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and his 14-year-old son, Dylan (Colin Ford).  Dylan is the real sullen problem child of the family and is abruptly expelled from school for misbehavior.  Benjamin has had enough of his son’s antics and decides that something drastic will need to be done in order to allow the whole family to begin anew in the wake of his wife’s death.  Benjamin and his realtor begin scouting future homes, but Benjamin is insistent on it being of the more countryside variety.  When they finally stumble on one bucolic property he is instantly smitten with it, but there is a large catch: it also has a zoo in the backyard. 

No problem.  Benjamin decides to purchase it and quickly uproots the family to their new home, despite not knowing anything in the way of zookeeping and handling. Benjamin’s young daughter, though, is absolutely ecstatic about her new surroundings, but Dylan just regresses back into moody solitude.  The zoo itself needs ample work, as it’s very rundown, but it is loved and tended after by a loyal group, led by head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson, who looks a bit like she just stepped off of a cover girl, magazine photo shoot and put on some overalls).  She believes that Benjamin is in over his head, which he acknowledges, but he works diligently to make the zoo presentable for its target opening day and the more time he spends with its eclectic group of animals – ranging from lions, tigers, bears, exotic birds, and monkeys – the more he grows to appreciate and love his new home.  His son, though...not so much. 



I really wanted to like this film.  Yet, it just posed far too many troubling questions about its underlining story.  I was left wondering how Benjamin was able to so easily purchase a zoo despite knowing nothing about their day-to-day operations (in real life, it took over two years to purchase it after much negotiation).  Then there are other nagging conundrums, like how Benjamin is so easily able to quit his job and have enough capital to buy something as relatively expensive as a zoo, not to mention how he has enough money to pay for all of its expenses.  There seems to be very little, if any, inner conflict with the movie version of Benjamin about his knee-jerk decision to leave his job, move to a zoo, and in turn find a way to financially sustain his family in the long run.  These issues clearly must have gone through the real Mee’s mind, but in the movie fantasyland presented here, Benjamin is so plucky, so optimistic, and so headstrong that he barely gives it credence. 

WE BOUGHT A ZOO is also, as previously stated, awash in script contrivances, some of which seem awfully convenient.  Take, for instance, a moment in the film when all financial hope for Benjamin is gone, but then the script provides a convenient way of providing instant cash funds to him via his dead wife’s safety deposit box (he also never consulted it ever until the story required it).  It’s also convenient how Benjamin’s son meets a very cute, age-appropriate, and very available farm girl that resides near the zoo to hook up with and thusly provide him with some emotional comfort.  Then there is the convenience of having the obligatory inspector (played well by John Michael Higgins) that is, of course, a royal pain in the ass and is in the story to provide some quick conflict.  Finally, there is also the convenience of having a zookeeper that looks like Scarlett Johansson that is conveniently single and available, which means that Benjamin and her, by default, will end up together. 

Things just have an annoying manner of being pieced together to flow from point a to b in this screenplay, which makes We BOUGHT A ZOO feel too structured to be considered a reasonable appropriation of the facts.  Crowe is a filmmaker that certainly has made a career of infusing his films with a soulful sentimentality that rarely felt forced (see SAY ANYTHING, ALMOST FAMOUS, JERRY MAGUIRE to name a few), but in WE BOUGHT A ZOO he seems to lack his trademark discipline.  For example, he’s always been known as a director that makes eclectic use of classic rock tunes to underscore key moments in the film, but here they seem to be a bit too spot-on and obvious.  Too much of WE BOUGHT A ZOO feels mechanically constructed to elicit an emotional response from viewers. 

Of the positives, I will say this: Damon is thanklessly great as Benjamin, and his winning, disarmingly likeable, and quietly vulnerable performance helps to anchor the film down when it devolves in silly, dime-a-dozen clichés.  Johansson – in spite of being a bit too attractive to be taken literally as a tomboy-ish animal handler that has trouble securing dates (yup, sure, uh-huh) - is unusually natural and effective here and maintains a nice chemistry with Damon, even though their relationship arc is achingly preordained.  Lastly, a little Thomas Haden Church - who has a brief role as Mee’s brother - gives, as always, the film’s driest performance that scores huge laughs with the most throwaway of lines.

I didn’t hate WE BOUGHT A ZOO as much as I felt that it cheats a bit too much with its reality-based story.  It desperately wants audience members to leave the theatre feeling...good, so much so that it overplays its melodramatic cards a bit too methodically.  The film, considering the lightness of its approach, is also an endurance test at over 120 minutes.  I guess that the seemingly unreal, but real story of Benjamin Mee’s journey to buy and maintain a dilapidated zoo is a fascinating one, but I just felt that all of the troubling dilemmas he must have endured to purchase it were kind of glossed over in this film version.  If you want to see an infinitely better drama about a man struggling through grief, then see THE DESCENDANTS.  That film didn’t have cute and adorable animals, to be sure, but it felt more tangibly authentic than WE BOUGHT A ZOO.  

Mee may have indeed bought a zoo, but I just did not buy into the dramatized account of it here.

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