We Bought a Zoo: Based on a True Story (2011)

Posted: September 11, 2012 in Drama, Family

Still feeling the sadness from the loss of his wife, Benjamin Mee finds himself in a moment where he knows that he needs to make a change. To try to give his kids a fresh start, he goes house hunting and comes across a property outside of the city that shows a lot of promise. It is not until he has almost completely fallen in love with the house that he learns that the house comes partnered with a zoo. Off of the excitement of his young daughter, Benjamin takes the plunge and accepts ownership and responsibility for both the house and the zoo. Initially in over his head, he puts his heart and nearly all of his money into the process of restoring the zoo in order to reopen on 7.7.10. He believes he can make it work, but he has to contend with an overzealous inspector, dwindling funds and the stress of trying to be a single dad for a young, independent daughter and a troubled, teenage son.

Starring: Matt Damon (Benjamin Mee), Scarlett Johansson (Kelly Foster), Thomas Haden Church (Duncan Mee), Colin Ford (Dylan Mee), Maggie Elizabeth Jones (Rosie Mee), Angus Macfadyen (Peter MacCready), Elle Fanning (Lily Miska), Patrick Fugit (Robin Jones), John Michael Higgins (Walter Ferris), Carla Gallo (Rhonda Blair), JB Smoove (Mr. Stevens), Stephanie Szostak (Katherine Mee)

While Matt Damon does give a solid performance, including a few emotional moments, the young Maggie Elizabeth Jones is truly the breakout star of the film. She has a depth in character that combines the innocence of a child with the maturity of a young girl who has accepted greater responsibility in the wake of great personal loss. She exhibits an intuition that would not be expected from a young girl and she is absolutely adorable. Johansson also exudes a brightness that helps to counter Damon’s fluctuation from energetic to drained.


Cameron Crowe’s adaptation of the true story encompasses the efforts of trying to save a zoo while also finding purpose in the shadow of great personal loss. Benjamin starts the film as a man who struggles with interacting with anything that reminds him of the turmoil of the illness and passing of his wife. As a single parent, he has been struggling to feel confident about keeping it all together and deal with Dylan’s emotional distance. When Rosie falls in love with the zoo, it gives him the push to go with the new adventure. While he struggles through a number of challenges, none of them are as emotionally draining as his shattered relationship with his son and the persistent reminders of the loss of his wife. His care for Spar the tiger represented his drive to avoid the same loss he felt when his wife’s illness took her away. The tiger surprisingly allows Benjamin and Dylan to find some common ground and start to move forward to work on their relationship.


While the film has an emotionally strong final series of events, there are a few challenges with the story in its identity. There are two significant messages that it tries to promote: restoring hope in the resurrection of the zoo in connection with the resurrection of the family and finding a way to reconcile loss. The adventure of the resurrection of the zoo takes on a hopeful stance but intermingles the pain and arguing between Benjamin and Dylan at some awkwardly convenient times. The fight they have right before starting to reconcile near the end of the film also takes a strange angle when Benjamin claims to not have known that Dylan needed help, considering that his principal and Kelly had direct conversations with him regarding working with Dylan’s emotional and inner issues.

Even still, the message of the film is rather strong and there are a number of great moments throughout the resurrection process. The end of the film definitely cranks up the drama with both the revelations of purpose and the life that was breathed back into the zoo.

Dan’s Rating: 3.5/5


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