MOVIE REVIEW: We Bought a Zoo


In the 14, going on 15, years since Matt Damon first garnered serious attention and an Academy Award for co-writing and starring in Good Will Hunting, the leading man and Boston native has made some of the best, most calculated, and professional choices of any actor of his generation.  When compared to the blockbuster-and-burnout route of his fellow Good Will Hunting co-writer and Oscar winner, Ben Affleck (Gigli, anyone?), Matt has honed his experience through superior art.  He continuously makes movies with the best award-winning directors in the business and avoids cashing paychecks on bad projects.  In working with Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan), John Dahl (Rounders), Anthony Minghella (The Talented Mr. Ripley), Robert Redford (The Legend of Bagger Vance), Billy Bob Thornton (All the Pretty Horses), Steven Soderbergh (the Oceans series, The Informant!, and Contagion), Paul Greengrass (the Bourne series and Green Zone), Terry Gilliam (The Brothers Grimm), Stephen Gaghan (Syrianna), Martin Scorsese (The Departed), Robert De Niro (The Good Shepherd), Clint Eastwood (Invictus and Hereafter), and the Coen Brothers (True Grit), Matt has built an impressive resume that has constantly challenged him to play a wide variety of roles.  He's played soldiers, killers, thieves, smoothies, athletes, and spies, all to great artistic and commercial success.

However, now that Matt has turned 42 this past year (can you believe it?), one role we haven't seen him entirely play is that of a father.  We've seen brief glimpses of that possibility in his roles in Syrianna, The Good Shepherd, and Contagion, but fatherhood was never the lead dynamic.  In the overdue Cameron Crowe's first film in six years (knotch another great director for the resume), Matt Damon gets to be a full-fledged dad in We Bought a Zoo.  It's also his first acting role in a PG-rated family film (lending his voice to animated movies like Happy Feet Two, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron, and Titan A.E. doesn't count) after a decade-plus of cursing and killing his way through action movies, Kevin Smith cameos, and Jimmy Kimmel skits.

The end result is fantastic.  In We Bought a Zoo, Matt Damon asserts himself as a movie father extremely well and adds to his immeasurable talent.  He's the best reason to see the film and isn't Disney-fying himself or cashing an easy paycheck.  Playing Benjamin Mee, a recently widowed Los Angeles Times journalist left with 7-year old Rosie (the incredibly adorable Maggie Elizabeth Jones of Footloose) and a 14-year old Dylan (Colin Ford of TV's Supernatural), Damon has the challenge of trying to be a single grieving parent.  His usual charming winks and smiles can only get him so far, especially with his teenage son getting expelled from school and challenging his every move at the beginning of our story.

Needing something new and fresh to get himself and his family away from a city filled with memories, reminders, and triggers of his wife (Stephanie Szostak), Benjamin quits his job at the Times, moves the family to the country, and buys a closed zoo property.  He does so greatly against the advice of his easy-going, yet protective accountant big brother Duncan (the equally easy-going Thomas Haden Church).  With the ambition to give his kids a genuine American experience, Benjamin sinks his efforts and money into repairing and re-opening the zoo.  He also hopes to earn the respect of the zoo's staff (including Braveheart's Angus McFayden, Almost Famous's Patrick Fugit, and Super 8's Elle Fanning), led by Scarlett Johansson's dedicated Kelly Foster.  They don't think Benjamin has the courage, finances, or dedication to see this thing through, especially when his failure can lead to the closing of the zoo and the orphaning and possible destruction of 40+ animal species.

If you haven't figured it out yet, We Bought a Zoo is far more about rebuilding the Mee family than it is about rebuilding the zoo of cuddly animals you see on all the ads and posters.  The wonderful interactions and work with the animal co-stars is well done, but it's only effective window dressing to the real project.  Benjamin has to find a way to move his family forward, do what's best for young Rosie, and heal the fractured relationship he has with Dylan.  The zoo and family elements are combined together very well by Cameron Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna's script adapted by Benjamin Mee's own true story.  The film is a great crowd-pleaser that will bring a welcome smile to your face.  We Bought a Zoo is right there with The Muppets as the best family movie of the 2011 holiday season.

LESSON #1: THE CHALLENGES OF A SINGLE PARENT-- There are many circumstances that create single-parent family situations.  The worst one is the death of a parent.  Not only is it detrimental to the surviving spouse who lost a companion and lover, but the children, both young and old, are deeply affected by the loss in completely different ways.  There's no cure for going through that other than sticking with and supporting each other.

LESSON #2: MAKING BIG CHANGES IN YOUR LIFE-- Speaking of sticking with and supporting family, Benjamin made the bold and borderline crazy decision to uproot his city family for a country house and a zoo with zero experience in the field.  Even in the light of losing a spouse and having life change that way, further drastic life changes like Benjamin's decision to save the zoo add to the overwhelming adjustment big changes make in one's life.  Sometimes those decisions are rash and costly, while others redefine you and build character in yourself and those around you.  In the words of Benjamin Mee, "why not?"

LESSON #3: ANIMALS ARE COOL, BUT PEOPLE ARE SOMETHING SPECIAL-- With the nature of the setting, many characters in the movie (matched by a few cheesy lines in the movie's trailer) have aligned their affections with either animals or people and have difficulties relating to the ones that they aren't specialized in.  Plenty of our characters are great with animals, but not good with people, and vice versa.  They soon learn that while animals are magnificent and need our attention, respect, and care, it's the people we love and interact with that truly make our lives more special.