I wonder who came up with the idea to market We Bought a Zoo with “From the director or Jerry Maguire.” For a PG rated movie that is trying to appeal to families during the holiday season, it seems odd to remind parents that the director directed the filthy (though still great) Jerry Maguire. I can’t imagine it will be a turnoff for most people, or at least I hope it isn’t, because We Bought a Zoo is fantastic. It’s emotional without melodramatics, funny without a feeling of desperation and high spirited without being optimistically annoying. This holiday season, it should be on everyone’s must see list.
The story follows Benjamin (Matt Damon), a single father whose wife just passed away a few months prior. He is now a single father to Dylan (Colin Ford) and Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and life isn’t great. Benjamin has just quit his job and Dylan is unhappy, partly due to his longing for his mom and partly because he’s simply at that rebellious age where nothing his father does is ever good enough. After Dylan steals in school one day, he is expelled, so Benjamin decides to start anew and they begin looking for a new house. Eventually, they find the perfect one and decide to buy it. The catch is that the house is actually part of a zoo that was just recently shut down. Buying the house also means buying the animals and ensuring their wellbeing. It’s a tough task, but Benjamin takes the responsibility anyway and, along with his zookeepers Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), Lily (Elle Fanning) and Robin (Patrick Fugit), he begins to renovate the zoo for a summer reopening.
We Bought a Zoo is simple, but absorbing. It takes a family that was torn apart by the death of their mother and wife and uses it to form a new dynamic, one where they can begin to heal and move on without ever really forgetting what happened. Although the mother, played by Stephanie Szostak, is hardly in the movie, you still feel the love that existed between husband and wife, mother and kids, which is a testament to the actors onscreen. Matt Damon is terrific as usual, but the kids shine. Fanning, who is beginning to overshadow her older sister Dakota, is radiant as the young animal lover who develops a childhood crush on Dylan. Ford has the toughest part as the child with the most baggage and a pent up anger over things he can’t control that he takes out on those around him, even if he knows he shouldn’t. The adorable Maggie Jones works as the opposite of her onscreen brother and she elicits a sparkle every second she is onscreen.
All of those people help create a story that is engaging and lively, itself a moving tale of loss and love. Where We Bought a Zoo suffers the most is in its desire to create a conflict. Granted, conflicts are an essential part of screenwriting—without one, there’s hardly a story—but the villain in this movie is caricature, an out-of-place, over-the-top inspector, played by comic actor John Michael Higgins, that will do anything to ensure that the zoo cannot open. He forces them to go out of their way to ensure every single nook and cranny of the park is up to regulation, even if that means spending untold amounts of money to heighten a barricade by only a few inches. While these standards and precautions are no doubt necessary in reality, Higgins plays the character like he stumbled in from this year’s Kevin James dud, Zookeeper.
Still, that character isn’t prominent enough to detract too much from what is otherwise a lovely and inspiring picture. It may be a bit too long with a runtime of over two hours, but the ending is so touching and perfect that any type of restlessness that you may have been feeling up to that point vanishes and is replaced by joyful tears. We Bought a Zoo doesn’t look like much on the surface, but there’s something very special hidden beneath its simple veneer.
We Bought a Zoo receives 4.5/5