Review of We Bought a Zoo

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Set in Southern California, a father moves his young family to the countryside to renovate and re-open a struggling zoo. Starring Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Elle Fanning, Thomas Haden Church, Colin Ford, Patrick Fugit & Desi Lydic.
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Movie Review: "We Bought a Zoo"

Rating: PG-13 (strong language, adult themes)
Length: 124 minutes
Release Date: December 23, 2011
Directed by: Cameron Crowe
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Family
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

"We Bought a Zoo" is a film adapted from a memoir of the same name, written by Benjamin Mee. In August of 2006, Benjamin had lost his wife and, hoping to make a fresh start for himself and his children, he bought a large home that also included a zoo.

With the intention of rebuilding his life, he moves his family into Dartmoor Wildlife Park, which was a local landmark opened in 1968 that was forced to close nearly four decades later after its owners fell on hard times. His young daughter is thrilled with the idea, but Mee's son is devastated at the thought of leaving his home and his friends behind. To add to his misery, the zoo desperately needs renovations. It is left up to Mee and his staff to bring the zoo back to its past splendor and glory, so it can pass inspection and open to the public. Mee gets to work right away, but the repairs needed are expensive, and the Mee family find themselves in serious financial trouble.

Matt Damon ("Margaret," "Contagion") stars as the film's fictionalized version of Mee. The film portrays Mee as a previously adventurous world traveler and reporter who is now a grief-stricken widower and a single dad. His daughter Rosie is played by the delightful Maggie Elizabeth Jones ("The First Time"). Some viewers might feel the portrayal of Rosie is a little too well adjusted for a child who's just lost her mother, but Jones's precociousness and charm outshine any plausibility issues. Damon successfully portrays Mee as a likeable guy who may not always do what's right but has the right intentions.

Mee's teenage son, Dylan is portrayed with unsettling believability by Colin Ford ("Eye of the Hurricane," "Supernatural"). The angry, moody and rebellious teen is expelled from school for stealing and shows a disturbing darkness through drawings that depict some pretty macabre scenes.

It is primarily his son's emotional chaos that spurs Mee into action, quitting his job, declining a severance package, and selling his house ans all within a frighteningly short period of time. Against his brother Duncan's (Thomas Haden Church, "Killer Joe," "John Carte") advice, Mee chooses his new home, which comes with a caveat: If he buys the house, he also agrees to invest in the zoo's renovation and ensure that the animals are cared for. Dylan hesitates, as any sane man would when contemplating such an insane idea, but his daughter's exuberance sways him, and he officially buys the zoo.

The deeper themes of grief are rapidly overshadowed by the comedic atmosphere of the zoo. The hilarious crew that awaits the Mee family are led by Kelly Foster, (Scarlett Johansson, "Iron Man 2," "He's Just Not That Into You") who is a distracted young woman with no life beyond her work at the zoo. Scarlet Johansson gives a solid and funny performance in the role and adds some shine to the motley crew she leads.

The film's pace picks up significantly, as does the comedy, as everyone runs around desperately trying to get the zoo ready before the deadline. They face several personal and professional obstacles, including sick animals, money trouble and unruly beasts bent on driving everyone nuts. Throughout it all, Mee tries to reconnect with his son, and their relationship shows painstakingly slow progress. Dylan Mee is more preoccupied with his struggle to learn how to communicate with Kelly's niece, Lily (Elle Fanning, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") to prove he's not just another boy. Dylan's father shares a similar struggle as he feebly fights a growing attraction to Kelly, which is at odds with his heartfelt grief over his late wife.

In the end, it is Kelly and Lily, along with the animals and zoo staff, who are instrumental in pulling the battered Mee family back together. The successful renovation of the zoo serves to show viewers that with a little hard work and a generous amount of love, anything can be mended, including the heart.

While the setup for "We Bought a Zoo" may seem overly saccharine and possibly a bit cliche, the characters shine on the screen, and inevitably, their enthusiasm and heartfelt emotion draw the viewer in. This film is predictable and in some parts sappy, but it is tantalizingly appealing for its undeniable uplifting effects. Moviegoers can't help but walk away from this film with a smile on their face.