Starring: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Elle Fanning, Thomas Hayden Church, Patrick Fugit
I’ll be up front, I didn’t particularly want to see this film. It’s not that I had anything particularly against it, it’s just that from the trailers, the movie looked a very bland drama that wouldn’t engage me. Having recently seen Salmon Fishing in The Yemen, I fully expected this to follow suit and be the type of movie that Mum’s would watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Heck, was I wrong.
The story follows Benjamin Mee (Damon), a recent widower who is struggling to cope with his own grief, whilst at the same time trying to raise his two kids Dylan (Colin Ford) and Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). Following Dylan’s suspension from school for stealing (as well as other misdemeanors) and the constant reminders of his wife that are dotted around his town, Benjamin decides to move to a new area to escape.
Whilst searching for a new home, the family come across a property, which even the eccentric real estate agent advises them against due to it “having complications”. As you might guess from the film title, the beautiful country home comes equipped with a fully inhabited, but closed-to-the-public zoo on the grounds. At first Benjamin is sceptical about taking on such a large responsibility, but once he sees how it could improve the lives of his family, he decides to buy it.
The zoo, currently under state care, has a fully operational staff, including head zookeeper Kelly (Johansson), craftsman Robin (Fugit), and Kelly’s niece Lily (Fanning). Due to Benjamin’s lack of experience, his sudden presence in their life is met with apprehension, as they fear he may not be able to make the project succeed.
Unfamiliar with the zookeeping business, and still trying to juggle the weighty emotions of his entire family, the main body of the film shows us the lengths Benjamin will go to restore the zoo, which has become the metaphor for his life. His decision to focus his energy on the zoo provides him with a means of escapism, but as a side effect, also helps him to move on and connect with his children better.
Damon is a hugely talented actor, with an impressive resume behind him, but to see him reach the age where he can easily play a father figure really made me feel old. I still think of him as the fresh-faced kid from Good Will Hunting, but now he is all growed up.
Once again he flexes his acting muscles, and having seen him more recently in action films such as the Bourne trilogy, it is nice to see him handle something more subtle. In particular the chemistry he has with the two children is impeccable.
The kids themselves are no slouches either. Ford as the angsty Dylan, rebelling against his father for not looking after him better following the death of his mother, does a great job and seeing his relationship with Fanning is touching. Like all romances between pubescent teens, it’s awkward, but what sets it apart is that it is pretty organic to the point of making it endearing.
That being said, if Ford is good, then Jones is incredible. As the 7-year-old Rosie, not only does she have some of the cutest scenes and lines in the whole film, but beyond that she also seems to have a great presence and acting ability. Somewhat ironically, her on-screen presence reminds me a little of the first time I saw Elle Fanning’s sister, Dakota, in the TV show Taken, who looked every bit the star in the making.
The rest of the cast also play their parts well, making up a somewhat eccentric group of staff, whilst Hayden Church’s older brother character is reminiscent of his character from Easy A.
Cameron Crowe arguably has a chequered directorial history, with some outstanding films dotted amongst the not-so-good, however, whilst We Bought A Zoo may not reach the pinnacle of his career, it isn’t very far off being a Jerry Maguire. Beautifully shot with a perfect mixture of comedy, storyline and sentiment, We Bought A Zoo is a family film that is a rare breed in that it should appeal to every member of the family, not just children.
Rating 4 out of 5
Did you know? We Bought A Zoo is based on the book of the same name, written by the real Benjamin Mee, who purchased Dartmoor Zoo in 2006.