When Benjamin Mee was shopping around for a new family home he ended up buying the ultimate fixer upper, a ramshackle house with an even more ramshackle zoo attached. Director Cameron Crowe has taken some liberties with the true story of a single father turned zookeeper—he relocates the story from Britain to Southern California for a start—but he maintains the most important part of Mee’s journey –the emotional core.
At the start of “We Bought a Zoo” Mee’s (Matt Damon) wife Katherine (Stephanie Szostak) has already passed away. The thrill seeking journalist is cut adrift, left with two young kids, teenage Dylan (Colin Ford) and 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), and a hankering to change his life. Leaving Los Angeles he buys a rural house nine miles from the nearest Target store, attached to an eighteen-acre property called the Rosemoor Animal Park.
The zoo has seen better days, as have its staff, de facto zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) and out-of-control maintenance man Peter MacCready (Angus Macfadyen). Mee’s commitment to the zoo and his family almost bankrupts him financially and emotionally but his commitment to doing the right thing for everyone—the two and four legged characters—puts both the zoo and his life back on track.
“We Bought a Zoo” shouldn’t work. It is too sentimental and manipulative by half but luckily Matt Damon is there to ground the flighty story. Even a postscript (and no, I’m not going to tell you what it is), that even Steven Spielberg would find schmaltzy, works because Damon hits all the right notes.
Johansson is sweet yet strong as the ambitious zookeeper, but like many of the supporting characters her role feels underdeveloped. That’s particularly true in the case of Lily, the farm girl played by Elle Fanning. It’s a likeable performance in search of some meaning within the movie.
As usual, however, Crowe’s dialogue sings. A father and son argument is a showstopper and you’ll likely never use the word “whatever” again without thinking of this movie.
Floating above all this is another pitch-perfect Crowe soundtrack, featuring the usual suspects—Neil Yonge and Randy Newman—to the unexpected—Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi.
“We Bought a Zoo” is a crowd pleaser with emotional truth provided by a Matt Damon’s portrayal of the courage not to let grief rule his life. It’s a performance ripe with decency and integrity and it elevates the entire movie.