We Bought A Zoo

 

ďWe Bought A ZooĒ will be a crowd-pleaser.  Itís charming, itís sentimental, itís hopeful, it has plenty of star power, and itís based on a heartwarming true story.  A little unevenness can be readily excused.

Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee, a middle-aged man with two children, a 15-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl, whose wife has died and heís having a difficult time adjusting.  Heíd worked as a writer on a newspaper staff, but his editor is trying to talk him into website only, which Benjamin (donít call me Ben) recognizes as a pity placement.  He wonít have any of it.  So he quits.

His son, Dylan (Colin Ford), is having a lot of trouble at school:  three recent suspensions, the latest for stealing money from the office.  His art projects are dark and gory, like youíd expect from someone violently angry.  He and his Dad donít seem to be able to talk to each other well, but theyíre both grieving and canít get out of themselves long enough to help each other.

The bright spot is the little girl, Rosie (the adorable Maggie Elizabeth Jones) whoís got enough maturity and happiness for all three of them. (Yes, itís unrealistic that she wouldnít be ďacting out,Ē also, but we already have enough dramatic tension.  Sheís the melt-your-heart relief.)

Benjamin, against the strong advice of his older brother, Duncan ( Thomas Haden Church ), decides to move the whole family, and buys a property that actually has a small zoo on it.  It went broke, and thereís only a skeleton staff remaining to care for the exotic animals, and they, too, will be gone unless Benjamin decides to sink his remaining resources---and pour his heart and soul---into refurbishing and re-opening.

The zoo staff itself is a competent and collegial group, and that helps a lot.  Though we can see the romance coming from a mile away between the young zookeeper, Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johannson), at least they donít overplay it when it finally does happen.  We can also immediately see it coming that a teenage girl, Lily (Elle Fanning), is going to redeem temperamental Dylan, but at least they take their time with it, and donít make it too easy.

In fact, the whole movie is sort of a chronicling of one setback after another.  Every time they appear to be making progress, something else happens:  the tiger gets sick, the bear escapes, the snakes are accidentally let loose, the inspector says the regulations have changed, the weather doesnít cooperate, the money runs out.  But our little group of irrepressible animal lovers will, in the end, enjoy the success we now fervently hope comes their way.  And just maybe a very grieving family will finally be able to let go of the past and make a future for itself by concentrating on the present.

Matt Damon broods pretty well, but is curiously circumspect in this role.  Scarlett Johannson is equally underutilized as the overworked straw boss, but understated works for her here.  Itís a little too tidy at the end, and in the middle shamelessly plucks at the heart strings, but itís a true family-friendly movie thatís both interesting and inspiring, and that combination will create commercial success, whether the jaded critics like it or not.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Interim Pastor, St. Stephenís Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas