After the death of his wife, newspaper columnist Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) decides to relocate himself and his two children to rural California to start over. They fall in love with an old farm house, but upon closer inspection find that whoever assumes ownership of the farm must also assume ownership and care of the small zoo that is attached to the property. Undaunted, Mee jumps right in to the adventure of his life. The result is We Bought a Zoo (2011, PG).
The difficulties in restoring a run down zoo and making it profitable are paralleled by Mee's awkward attempts to restore normality to his family, who are still grieving at the death of their mother. Relations are especially bad between Benjamin and his angst-ridden, reclusive teenage son, who's character was so stereotypical and standard these days that I totally have forgotten his name.
At first, Ben's management of the zoo is questioned by the staff of the operation, led by Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), but after some defining moments and opportunities that test his leadership, they fall into place behind him in a frantic struggle to get the funding and repairs necessary to bring the zoo up to code before opening day.
The casting is actually better in the secondary characters than the protagonists. Matt Damon is alright, but nothing special. Johannson is...well, she is overrated. She get's roles because she is nice to look at and has a deep, seductive voice. That's it. Casting her in the roll of a strung out, high maintenance zoo manager is a bit of a stretch. It just seemed kind of out of place, like Arnold Schwarzenegger's role in Kindergarten Cop or Nicholas Cage in anything he's ever acted in. But the secondary cast was great; it was nice to see Thomas Haden Church as Benjamin Mee's brother; ever since his stint on Wings in the mid-90's, Church hasn't done much other than Spider Man 3.
Also of interest was the presence of Angus Macfadyen, who plays the zoo's maintenance man. Throughout the entire film I was trying to figure out where I had seen this actor before. His facial expressions looked so familiar but I could not place him. Then, shortly before the end of the movie, it hit me: Macfadyen played Robert the Bruce the Mel Gibson's Braveheart. He has obviously put on a lot of weight since Braveheart, but he did well and it was nice to see him again.
The plot is your run of the mill uplifting poor-boy-makes-good-underdog story, not unlike Pursuit of Happyness, Astronaut Farmer, Rudy or Mighty Ducks. It is edifying, but not particularly exciting. There are some scenes that drag. One thing that was disappointing was that, despite being named We Bought a Zoo, there are not a lot of scenes with animals. Sure, there are some, enough to keep the kids moderately interested, but we get a lot of shots of Matt Damon arguing with his son, Matt Damon pouring over bills, Matt Damon walking around looking at a clip board, Matt Damon and Thomas Hayden Church arguing, Matt Damon looking distressed. Probably 30% more animals and much less Matt Damon-in-conflict would have been better suited to keep young viewers attention.
If you are into Distributism, the concept of a regular joe and his family purchasing an independent zoo and making it work in a world where most zoos are massive corporate entities, you might really like this film. It is based on a true story, as well.
I don't believe there was any blasphemy; I think the teenage son says "ass" once. There was a mild romantic subplot which felt kind of forced. Damon and Johannson never get into any compromising situations; there is a single kiss at the end, but that's all. As I said, the whole thing feels kind of forced. I'm not sure why the plot demanded that the father and the zoo manager actually fall in love, but, whatever. That's Hollywood.
All in all it was not that bad, but it was not that good either. I'd say most of the plot was lost on my 8 year old and the younger kids, who got kind of fidgety because there wasn't enough shots of animals. But my older daughter enjoyed it, as did my wife.