Original review featured on the Doha Film Institute website.
Director: Cameron Crowe
Stars: Matt Damon, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Scarlett Johansson and Elle Fanning
Running Time: 124 mins
In this amiable family drama, middle aged widower Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is unable to hold together his grieving family of two children, after the passing of his wife to cancer. In an attempt for a new adventure and fresh start, he falls in love with a house surrounded by a beautiful forest, but is told that the main condition of purchase is to maintain the zoo that comes attached to the property. He takes the risk and moves from the city to the menagerie which needs a major overhaul before it is to reopen to the public.
A journalist writing adventure columns, Benjamin is lacking stories to share and finds himself resigning from the newspaper. In part, this is to escape the sympathetic looks of his boss and colleagues. At the same time, his fourteen-year old son Dylan (Colin Ford) has just been expelled from school for theft while displaying introverted behaviour, expressed through dark paintings of monsters coloured in black and blood red.
Based on a memoir by Benjamin Mee, moving to a dilapidated zoo was the last effort of a despairing widow looking for any means of happiness. His trigger to this big step is the look of joy on the face of his seven year-old daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) at the sight of the zoo’s animals. In their old neighbourhood, the Mees are looking to escape the overwhelming memories of their deceased wife and mother.
But coming with no experience in the field of animals and zoo, he didn’t expect all the expenditures that may be involved in the process, draining his financial savings and inheritance, while tensions with his son grow more intense. The moving in period is tougher than expected, especially now that a full time staff headed by Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) and featuring Elle Fanning, were hoping to find in Benjamin a rescuer who will save their jobs and the animals. So far, anyone who promised to open the zoo has ended up reselling it. The fear is that Benjamin will follow the same fate of previous owners as he develops more doubts and concerns.
From now on the premise seems predictable, conflict is here and Benjamin struggles with the challenge of restoring glory to the zoo. In Scarlett Johansson, he finds a new romance. Cameron Crowe, who previously directed the feel-good “Jerry Maguire” and the meditative “Vanilla Sky”, doesn’t pull out any of his usual box of tricks here. Instead, “We Bought a Zoo” has a rather simplistic narrative, but manages to create emotions and engages viewers with the fate of this grieving family, thanks to the performance of Matt Damon and the children.
If the film does provide gratification, it is due to the pure conversations between Benjamin and his daughter. But it is disappointing to have all these great elements of nature and animals and not to take advantage. The inhabitants of the zoo are filmed with an ordinariness which could have been spiced up with a touch of cinematographic magic.
Human connections are the strongest bond within the family Mee. The relationships are sincere and profound. The rest of the characters, however, are underdeveloped, attempting to create a forced sense of humor. The only exception here, of course, is Scarlett Johansson, who is the basis of a new love angle.
After the flops of “Vanilla Sky” and “Elizabethtown”, Cameron Crowe has managed to come back to mainstream cinema again. “We Bought a Zoo” is an enjoyable film that will see adults shed some tears while their children enjoy the hatching of eggs. Everyone will learn about hope and the will to go on.