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Movie Review: We Bought a Zoo

Lions, tigers and bears — and a family you’ll love

Matt Damon gets up close and personal with one of his new four-legged neighbors in "We Bought a Zoo"

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Matt Damon gets to know one of his new four-legged neighbors in <i>We Bought a Zoo</i>.

Director: Cameron Crowe
Rated: PG, Runtime: 124 mins.
Stars: Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson.

En español  |  Pay no attention to the ad campaign for this film, which offers up animal-shaped graphics that appear inspired by a children’s wallpaper line.  The title is also deceptively over-simplistic, taken from the 2008 memoir by British journalist Benjamin Mee: 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.  Director Cameron Crowe’s movie version of this true-life adventure, transplanted from Devonshire, England to Southern California is actually a rich story of love, loss, family, resilience, risk and love again. It will make grown-up audiences laugh and cry, often.

This is a father’s tale, and Matt Damon, as Benjamin Mee, plays him knowingly. We meet him when he’s working as a death-defying journalist who will trek deep into a jungle or hop aboard a rocket to get “the story.” Everything changes when the love of his life and mother of his two adorable children dies, and Mee decides he needs to start fresh, for the sake of the kids and his own sanity. He quits his job, launches a search for a house in the country and settles on a ramshackle property located on a luscious rolling landscape complete with a private animal park — lion, grizzly bear and porcupine included.

Not included in the sales price, but expecting to be paid monthly salaries, is a motley crew of workers attached to the park. Among them is head zookeeper Kelly Foster, played by Scarlett Johansson in one of her best performances of late; and her sidekick, Robin Jones, played by Patrick Fugit (with capuchin monkey attached), who first made his mark in Crowe’s Almost Famous. The tight-knit group is initially suspicious of their new owner, and rightly so. Mee tells his doubters — among them his brother, Duncan, played handily by Thomas Haden Church — that he definitely has not lost his marbles. He insists that he knows he’s done the right thing — especially when he sees the look in the face of 7-year-old Rosie (portrayed by the cherubic and charming Maggie Elizabeth Jones) as she tends to a mamma peacock and its chicks.

But not all is happiness and bliss. Son Dylan (Colin Ford), 14, already wounded by the loss of his mom, misses his city pals and can’t understand why Dad’s relocated him to the sticks. And Mee is bleeding money to care for the menagerie while attempting to rehab the park enough to meet the tough licensing standards of inspector Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins of Best in Show) and reopen it, come spring, to the public.

The money comes, by way of a miracle. Some might argue that the ultimate outcome is contrived. I say, “It really does take a village.”

Crowe devotes a chunk of his film to recounting the love story between Mee and his deceased wife (portrayed with virtually no dialogue by character actress Stephanie Szostak) in flashback. It’s a tender, poignant portrayal, and it drives Damon’s interpretation of character as the present-day action unfolds.  Mee moves realistically through his grief — first defensive, then confused, soon raw and realistic, finally quietly resigned. Damon flashes his loveable lopsided smile no more than three times in the film, and it’s perfectly emblematic of Mee (or any of us who’ve experienced deep loss) having achieved that small bit of happiness that’s just enough. If he weren’t a devoted dad (both on-screen and in real life), none of it would work — but, boy, does it.

P.S.  The animals really are a delight to watch, and boomers will love the music (the score was accomplished by Iceland’s Jónsi, previously of How to Train Your Dragon and Vanilla Sky) — Crowe has an ear for us.