A widower moves his two children out to the country and buys a zoo in We Bought a Zoo, a decently entertaining story bogged down by a whole lot of syrupy sentimentality.
Writer Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is barely holding his family together after the death of his wife less than a year ago. His young daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) is sad and his 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford) is full of anger and rebellion, most of which comes out in various stunts getting him suspended from school. After his fourth such incident, he’s expelled and Benjamin decides the whole family needs a new start. He passes on several standard suburban homes but finds himself enchanted by a house out in the country — “nine miles from the nearest Target” is how everyone describes it. There are, however, complications, the real estate agent (J. B. Smoove) tells Benjamin. The house isn’t just the house but also the 18 acres of land, which includes a zoo filled with endangered animals. The state took the property over and has been maintaining the animals but a contingency of the sale is that the new owner makes it a working zoo again.
Naturally, Benjamin is not so keen on this zoo business.
However, he sees his daughter happily befriending the peacocks and he decides oh heck why not? Rosie is delighted but Dylan, like teenagers everywhere, decides this change will RUIN his WHOLE LIFE. Nonetheless, to the zoo it is for the Mee family.
The zoo comes not only with animals but with people including zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) and her young niece Lily (Elle Fanning), who is 13 and being homeschooled while she works at the zoo.
So maybe things aren’t as bad for Dylan as they seemed at first.
Like all quixotic ventures, the zoo requires Benjamin to shell out way more money than planned and his career as a journalist did not really prepare him for all the facets of zoo ownership. And then there are the family relationships. Though Rosie is happier, Dylan is still king mope and Benjamin himself is having a hard time really moving on from the death of his wife.
The land the zoo sits on is very pretty and you understand how someone — particularly someone hungry to make a dramatic life change — could become infatuated with it. The zoo itself — like a vineyard or a restaurant or a theater or any other “becomes your whole life” endeavor — is also enchanting: “We’ll live on the zoo and the children will get in touch with nature and in all the fence-mending and barn-painting there will be no time for juvenile delinquency.” And the running of the zoo makes for an interesting story full of details you’re unlikely to run across elsewhere. Which is all to say that We Bought a Zoo has good bones.
Where the movie gets bogged down is in its heavy thick syrupy suffocating sentimentality. I can live with the cutesy zoo stuff — the quirky employees, the animal humor, the mild flirtation between Benjamin and Kelly. But the sad music and the sun-dappled flashbacks on Benjamin’s dead wife and the constant “I don’t know how to relate to my son” speeches are very much too much. A bit of this with a lot of details (slapsticky, sad, whatever) about how a zoo comes together would have worked much better. These are basically likeable characters and the story is not the campy Mr. Popper’s Penguins-style joke barrage that I was expecting. But the constant effort on the part of the movie to jerk tears from the audience feels false and unappealing.
We Bought a Zoo is a decent effort at producing a family-friendly dramady, but it would benefit from a serious dialing down of its melodrama. C+
Rated PG for language and some thematic elements. Directed by Cameron Crowe and written by Cameron Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna (from the book by Benjamin Mee), We Bought a Zoo is two hours and four minutes long and distributed by 20th Century Fox.