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DVD REVIEW: ‘We Bought a Zoo’ moves from reality to ‘reel’ life Bill Fentum, Apr 3, 2012
PHOTO COURTESY 20TH CENTURY FOX
Matt Damon stars in 'We Bought a Zoo' as a widowed father who starts a new life as the owner of a small zoo.
By Bill Fentum Associate Editor
We Bought a Zoo Rated PG for language and some thematic elements
The ads tell us that We Bought a Zoo—newly released on DVD and Blu-ray—is “based on a true story.”
That’s very loosely correct: In 2006, British journalist Benjamin Mee purchased a zoological park in Devon, England, and moved onto the property with his family. Soon after, his wife died from cancer, but Mr. Mee and their two children stayed on and turned the zoo into a thriving family business.
Here, the action has been transplanted to the U.S. where American journalist Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is already widowed and struggling to raise his 14-year-old son Dylan and 7-year-old daughter Rosie in suburban Southern California.
Sensing the need for a fresh start—and against the advice of his bewildered brother (Thomas Haden Church)—Benjamin quits his job, buys a decaying 18-acre zoo and an adjoining house, and moves in with the kids. With a staff led by head zoo keeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), everyone gets busy on repairs and tending to the diverse animal population.
That means not just lions, tigers and bears but also peacocks, porcupines and a host of exotic reptiles. Can Benjamin and crew turn things around in time for a summer re-opening? Will their funding hold out? And most important from a human perspective, is this whole “adventure” good medicine for Benjamin’s still-grieving family?
At first we aren’t sure. Rosie (scene-stealer Maggie Elizabeth Jones), seems thrilled by it all. But Dylan (Colin Ford)—falling behind in school and pouring his pain into creative but morbid drawings—feels resentment. In a climactic confrontation, he accuses Benjamin of being a neglectful parent and forcing his dreams for the zoo on everyone else.
Then healing comes in the unexpected form of Spar, a tiger that at age 17 is near the end of its life. Both Benjamin and Dylan are moved by the animal’s noble spirit, and in sharing this second loss as a team, father and son find a way to hold onto memories and still move forward. The best scene in the film, it’s nicely handled by the two actors and director/co-writer Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous).
Otherwise, We Bought a Zoo is genial if routine entertainment. With Mr. Damon and Ms. Johansson in the leads, we know a winsome romance will develop—and it does, though more slowly than you might expect. There’s a bit of puppy love, too, as Kelly’s young niece Lily (Elle Fanning) helps pull Dylan out of his shell.
Add a mix of contemporary songs and oldies on the soundtrack, an agreeable supporting cast and only sporadic mild profanity, and you at least have pleasant “family movie night” fare. Nothing more, but assuredly nothing less.