By Hannah Courtney, Contributing Writer
For some, the title may be a little off-putting; I willingly admit that I felt hesitant to see a movie with a name that reminded me of the saying “we ran away and joined the circus”. They say not to judge a book by its cover and this loosely translates into the world of film as well. That saying couldn’t ring more true for Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought a Zoo.”
The film, based on a memoir by Benjamin Mee, follows the heartbroken, recently widowed Benjamin (Matt Damon) as he grieves over the loss of his wife. He is a single parent for his 14-year-old, rebellious son Dylan (Colin Ford) and seven-year-old, quirky daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones).
With quitting his job and Dylan’s expulsion from school adding fuel to the fire, Benjamin decides he needs a fresh start. After turning down several perfectly good homes, he and Rosie agree on a property with a few, living strings attached. The movie title speaks for itself: they bought a zoo.
With this purchase, Benjamin gets a crew of devoted workers led by zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) and a dilapidated zoo which he must try to have up and running by summer. It’s a process that proves difficult, especially when the renovative expenses drain Benjamin’s bank account.
This movie isn’t about financial worries, though. In fact, it reminds the viewer of the beauty behind letting go of material possessions and money and finding riches in experiences, love and collaboration instead.
There are several touching characters that give the movie that much more oomph. Benjamin Mee is easy to connect with. Nearly everybody has suffered the loss of a loved one. In Benjamin, they’ll revisit that loss and see themselves in his eyes as he cries, screams, laughs, and hopes.
Rosie Mee, with her childlike innocence, offers the comic relief and hint of optimism that carries Benjamin, as well as the viewer, through the solemn moments.
Dylan Mee all but tramples on the idea of buying the zoo in the first place and carries himself with a sour attitude, but it’s the source of his emotions that create sympathy rather than annoyance. He’s grieving for his mother in his own way, feeling lonely and disconnected when his friends from school fail to keep in touch, and can’t connect with Benjamin. Finally, Kelly Foster’s undying devotion and passion for the zoo inspires viewers and plants a warmth in their hearts.
Tending to the zoo turns into a therapeutic journey for Benjamin. The audience watches as he pours all of his focus and pain into the renovation project, forms a family-like bond with the crew, struggles to let go of his wife, faces his estrangement from Dylan, shares touching, reminiscent moments with Rosie, falls in love with the animals, and takes the illness of a tiger, which psychologically acts as a metaphor for his deceased wife, personally.
This is a feel-good movie, but the viewer doesn’t feel good without earning it. The story is a raw depiction of the way that the death of a loved one can kill something inside of those they leave behind and the trials and tribulations they face to bring it back to life. The zoo is much like Benjamin: run down and unorganized but with the potential to be something great again. As Benjamin fixes the zoo, the audience watches as he tries to, vicariously through the zoo, fix himself as well.
Benjamin not only buys a zoo, but also a new beginning. While the story unfolds, the viewer gets to turn the pages of renovation, both internal and external, along with the Benjamin Mee they grow to care about, sympathize with, and root for.
He bought a zoo, and you really ought to see what he’s done with the place.