King of schmaltz Cameron Crowe is known for wearing his heart on his sleeve. He ˜had us at hello’ in Jerry Maguire and in We Bought a Zoo he brings us an unfailingly optimistic look at love, loss and having the bravery to start again. The film is centered around Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) and his recently bereaved family as they try to move on from the tragic loss of Mrs Mee (Stephanie Szostak).
Six months after her death, Benjamin is struggling to keep the family together; Rosie is only seven and his fourteen year old son Dylan, although a talented artist, has just been given his fourth strike at a three strike school which can no longer make allowances for him. On his hunt for a new school, a new house and a fresh start, Benjamin finds his dream property but there’s just one catch; it comes with a zoo attached. Despite objections from his brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), Benjamin decides to take on the challenge of the zoo and its staff who are a motley but dedicated bunch. Along the way to getting the zoo ready for its grand re-opening, Benjamin and co must overcome financial as well as emotional difficulties, the wettest summer in a hundred years and a visit from zoo inspector Walter ˜the Dark Lord’ Ferris (John Michael Higgins) who brings in the laughs with his rigorous methods and retractable tape measure.
As expected, We Bought a Zoo is so sugary its almost cavity-inducing, but a healthy peppering of emotional gravitas and humour from optimist Benjamin and his irreverent brother Duncan manages to take edge off and ease the film through as a plausible and enjoyable. It treads the line of whimsy and skepticism well enough to convince the audience that they too can uproot their lives and go and do something ˜wacky’ if only they have the heart and guts to do it.
We Bought a Zoo lead, the inherently likable, Matt Damon gives the sense of being a lot better than material he’s been given to work with but gets the best out of it none the less. Likewise Scarlett Johansson isn’t too annoying as the no-nonsense zoo-keeper who challenges Benjamin and keeps his ideas in check.
For those looking for a realistic portrayal of death and heartache, look again. We Bought a Zoo celebrates life’s possibilities rather than its tragedies, evidenced in the scene where Benjamin takes his children to the restaurant where he and Mrs. Mee met and points out that that’s where they became ˜possibilities.’ Grief is perhaps one of the hardest themes to convey on screen and We Bought a Zoo seems to suggest that these difficulties can be dealt with by sweeping them under the carpet of cute animals and capers involving escaping bears. The characters in the film inhabit a world where the stages of grief are wrapped up in neat little packages and everyone’s salvation, whether it be a headstrong zoo-keeper who happens to be a stunner or a fixer-upper life in the country, is readily available to them.
We Bought a Zoo‘s sense of an alternate reality may sit a little less comfortably with Brits when they discover that the film is actually based on the memoirs of British journalist Benjamin Mee and his zoo which is actually in Devon.