We Bought a Zoo

It is the end of the year and this is the time when Hollywood reasons it is the right time for them to trot out their expected big money makers. As for me, I needed a film that was light, heartfelt, and one with basically a ‘feel good’ kind of essence to it. We Bought a Zoo turned out to be very entertaining and more than filled the bill. One could call it the perfect family film for the holidays, only it doesn’t have even a hint of Christmas from first frame to last. Nor is it a perfect film.

So after The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which I saw a couple of days ago, watching a film without any murders was quite comforting, and hearing Neil Young croon Cinnamon Girl on the ‘Zoo’ soundtrack was a nice surprise. Director Cameron Crowe is showing his age with the choice of that song. Then again so am I.

The story is rock solid simple. A guy in his early 40’s, Benjamin Mee, played by Matt Damon is grieving over his wife’s death. He’s got a 14-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones plays Rosie who steals every scene she’s in). While the daughter hums along nicely, we know that she’s going to miss her Mom.

Mee: Rosie, am I doin' anything right? / Rosie: Well you're handsome, and you got more hair than some of the other Dads - so that's good.

The son, Dylan Mee played by Colin Ford, on the other hand, is a mess. He’s a four-time loser at school (three suspensions followed by being expelled). So Benjamin quits his job as an adventure writer for a newspaper and decides that for the family to heal, he’ll need to get them out of the city (L.A.) because everywhere they go, they’re reminded of Mom.

They don’t like anything of what they’ve been shown in a new house in a new neighborhood, until their newbie real estate agent drives them so far out of the city that it is 9 miles from the nearest place to go food shopping. This is of course – THE ZOO!

Real Estate Agent: It's complicated / Mee: What's so complicated about this place?

Agent to Mee: It's a zoo !

It’s rundown, dilapidated, and has been closed for a few years. The federal authorities have watched the zoo struggle with the maintenance and upkeep of the animals during this period which is still going if not still in business. Matt Damon’s Mee loves the house. But there’s a catch – you can’t buy the house without the zoo. Mee, of course knows nothing about animal maintenance, and even less about running a zoo. But he hasn’t quite killed off the adventurer within him, so he signs the dotted line, and is now, the owner of the zoo.

There’s a staff on hand. Scarlett Johannson plays Kelly Foster, the head zoo-keeper. Kelly and the staff know their business (the care and maintenance of the zoo animals) and they’re skeptical ( He won’t last….) that Benjamin can right this ship, or ark – dang it – this zoo! But Mee is willing to roll up his sleeves, wield a hammer, a pitchfork, or a shovel, or even have a heart-to-heart with the animals as required. But this is a costly venture. They money goes out, and there’s none coming in.

As I said earlier, the zoo has been closed. The local enforcer/inspector of the zoo codes comes by unannounced – in what he calls a pop-in. Just as Seinfeld referenced the pop-in years ago, it is an event to be dreaded. Anyway, with no uncertainty, we can see that this zoo inspector, Walter Ferris, played by John Michael Higgins, is not about sign off on re-opening the zoo on July 7th, unless every last bit of the code requirements are met. A daunting task, indeed.

A few months later, things have progressed, but word gets around that Mee is out of money. This word is spread by the zoo’s taciturn female bookkeeper. The staff is nervous, the son is overjoyed thinking they will soon depart  the zoo and all of its problem. This leads to an issue between the son and the local lass (Elle Fanning) who works off the books at the zoo.

But just when things look their bleakest a silver lining appears.

Ok, that’s as far as I need to go. I did say that this was a feel good movie, and common sense tells us that they wouldn’t release a film about a guy with two young kids who buys a zoo – that fails – and release this film 2 days before Christmas. So we know how the film will end even before we see it.

But that’s only a part of the film. Mee still has to come to terms with his wife’s death. The son has to get his act together, Scarlett J and Matt D will have to fall in love – don’t tell me you weren’t thinking along those lines ever since you saw the trailer, or the movie poster. And then, the sun will come up tomorrow – only on the day before the zoo’s scheduled opening, they’re hit with the area’s worst rain storm in 100 years.

Will the zoo’s opening day be a washout?

Matt Damon turns in an acceptable performance. The character is a likeable guy, and Dillon is a popular actor. He only has one scene where he has to amp up and be dramatic. Really this is a much easier role than chasing across the Tangier, Morocco rooftops as he did as Jason Bourne. Johannson is suitably attractive as the hard-working zoo-keeper. She tells us, “I’m 28, I live with my parents, I’m here every day, and I can’t remember my last ‘date’.

As for the rest of the cast – the zoo inspector was quite good in a by-the-numbers role. Thomas Haden Church played Benjamin’s older brother Duncan. He was good too, in a role that called for him to be both grounded and realistic, trying to keep his younger brother in check, yet at the same time, he had a New Age look and feel to him – ‘Sunlight and joy are good! Get rid of the zoo but keep the zoo-keeper…‘ are his best lines.

Crowe will not win any awards for this film, as the script written Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna held no surprises at all, and was entirely predictable. But I found that there were enough laughs to make it enjoyable. Cool music and attractive actors with lots of closeups are fine but by themselves won’t guarantee a hit.

Yet, there’s enough enjoyment that when you leave the theater, you will feel good. While three key roles are played by kids – your kids will like the monkey, the bear, the tiger, and so forth – but they won’t be as happy while grief, zoo finances, and the stress of letting go are in the forefront. So, the truth is, that this is really a film that adults will enjoy more than their kids. Especially if all you want is light, heartfelt, and to feel good.

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