‘We Bought a Zoo’ Review

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Matt Damon We Bought a Zoo We Bought a Zoo Review

Screen Rant’s Ben Kendrick reviews We Bought a Zoo

Writer/director Cameron Crowe has helmed a number of iconic and critically acclaimed films – including Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, and Vanilla Sky. However, the celebrated filmmaker hit a wall when his 2005 drama, Elizabethtown was poorly received and underperformed at the box office.

As a result, film fans have been eagerly anticipating Crowe‘s follow-up feature project, We Bought a Zoo – an adaptation of writer Benjamin Mee‘s memoir, We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo, and the 200 Wild Animals That Changed Their Lives Forever. The rich source material, coupled with Crowe‘s character-focused storytelling approach, were certainly indicators that We Bought a Zoo could offer another thoughtful and compelling movie from the esteemed director. That said, anyone familiar the book, will recognize that adapting Mee‘s story would be a complicated endeavor – given the bizarre premise, myriad of side players, and challenging core story arcs.

While We Bought a Zoo isn’t Crowe‘s most coherent (or most compelling) film project, it’s overly long and gets muddled at times, many audience members will likely find the film to be an enjoyable experience. Through some beautiful cinematography, solid performances, and a great soundtrack by Jonsi (the lead singer of Sigur Rós), Crowe delivers a competent film adaptation of the source material. The movie isn’t likely to win the director or the performers many accolades but that doesn’t mean that, moment-to-moment, moviegoers won’t be captivated by Mee‘s story.

Some film fans may have already been exposed to Benjamin Mee in the BBC documentary, Ben’s Zoo – which aired as a four-part series in 2007 and chronicled the remodeling of the Dartmoor Zoological Park in England (changed to the Rosemoor Wildlife Park in California for the film project). While the true-life story has its share of drama, Crowe‘s adaptation streamlines the narrative by setting the death of Mee‘s wife, Katherine, long before the family ever arrives at the zoo (in the real life memoir Katherine died only three months before the reopening of the Dartmoor Zoological Park).

Rosemoor Wildlife Park We Bought a Zoo We Bought a Zoo Review

The Rosemoor Wildlife Park in 'We Bought a Zoo'

The proceeding events chronicle the attempts of the Mee family members, father Benjamin (Matt Damon), son Dylan (Colin Ford), and daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), as they move beyond their tragic loss. After Dylan is expelled from school, Benjamin attempts to provide his family with a clean break – by purchasing a dilapidated zoo in the interest of offering his children a game-changing adventure. At the Rosemoor Wildlife Park, the family is introduced to a team of quirky staff members led by head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson). Together, in spite of mounting debts and personal tension, the group works to prepare the zoo for a grand reopening – and, in the case of the Mees, finally let go of Katherine.

With plenty of story drama at his disposal, Crowe succeeds in capturing some intriguing character moments and, as a result, We Bought a Zoo offers a number of solid, albeit not exactly award-worthy, performances. Damon balances the likable personality of Benjamin with some challenging emotional beats as he faces off with family members, an unruly staff, as well as painful memories. Similarly, Johansson delivers another sound performance – but, unfortunately, isn’t given a lot of room to either develop her character or seamlessly work Kelly into the over-arching Mee story. As a result, Kelly’s arc is a misfire in the film – and, despite being an intriguing character in her own right, ultimately muddles some of Benjamin’s motivations and potential character development.

Despite offering compelling drama individually, the balance between these “letting go of Katherine” arcs and the moment-to-moment Rosemoor Wildlife Park story lines never come together in a truly cohesive blend – and instead the onscreen drama plays out like intertwined threads that, once in awhile, affect one another. None of the zoo-centric characters talk to the Mees about Katherine – only watch from afar as Benjamin acts out and lets his (obvious to everyone) pain affect decisions at the park. Example: after a disagreement with Kelly, Benjamin disappears entirely, leaving his children alone at the house, until Kelly inexplicably shows-up, orders a pizza, and puts the kids to bed. When Benjamin finally arrives home, the pair exchange “profound” and expository dialogue - without really addressing any of the feelings that Mee is experiencing. There’s little doubt that audiences will be invested moment-to-moment but reflecting on a lot of the key scenes, it’s clear that We Bought a Zoo isn’t just filled with missed opportunities for compelling drama – it actively avoids tough conversations (and interactions).

Scarlett Johansson We Bought a Zoo We Bought a Zoo Review

Patrick Fugit, Matt Damon, and Scarlett Johansson in 'We Bought a Zoo'

The division wouldn’t be so noticeable if the movie wasn’t already over-long. Crowe manages to keep things moving and galvanizes the plot with a few all-too-convenient solutions to problems but, as the film wrestles between competing narrative focuses, a lot of key characters either get left in the dust or aren’t successfully resolved. Even the Katherine storyline is overdrawn – and gets revisited one too many times (after an already satisfying resolution).

That said, even though We Bought a Zoo is over-stuffed and doesn’t always make good on story elements and characters that it seems to be setting up, there’s still plenty to enjoy in the film. Crowe successfully captures the magic and wonder of the Rosemoor Wildlife Park and its animal inhabitants. Simply watching the interactions between humans and the wildlife offers a number of captivating and genuinely charming moments – especially whenever carpenter, Peter MacCready (Angus Macfadyen) is involved.

While We Bought a Zoo isn’t going to be the type of critically-lauded character drama that put Crowe on the map, the film is still likely to offer moviegoers a heartening trip to the theater. A muddled focus keeps the movie from being a guaranteed hit with kids or a captivating adult drama – but, for moviegoers who are merely interested in an enjoyable middle-ground film, there are enough compelling moments in We Bought a Zoo to make it worth a look.

If you’re still on the fence about We Bought a Zoo, check out the trailer below:


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Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick - and let us know what you thought of the film below:

We Bought a Zoo is now in theaters.

Our Rating:

3 out of 5

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  1. I’m surprised this movie got a decent review. The trailer looked terrible. Definitely not watching it but it’s nice to know it wasn’t that bad.
    Damon’s hair has a Hanks in The Davinci Code look to it. Very non-threatening.

  2. Hi. We Just Bought a Zoo is the inspiration of my free new orioginal youtube song about wieghts and measures – Weighting at the Zoo. Hoepo you
    like it

  3. There was lots of fighting and drama. Swearing throughout the movie!!!!

  4. I thought the movie “I Bought the Zoo ” would be a good movie.
    The only redeaming factor in this movie is that you could by a zoo. The depressing factor is that there are zoos. Keeping animals in cages is against their nature.

    The acting was great by the adults. The kids acting and dialouge was lame. Was the theme about buying a zoo, taking a broken down zoo to a functioning zoo, a romance between teenagers with the girl being older than the boy, or a widowed and children grieving over his wife. I slept through most of it and would have rather stayed home and saved our money.

    In general, I will not go to any movies any more. I feel they are amateur and sleepers. The dialogue is far and few in between, the pacing of movies today are to slow for my taste. One minute of looking at someones eye or them ponder a thought is to long. Moreover there is at least 3 to 5 separate stories in each film. What I loathe even more is being seduced by the trailer and the trailer was the actual best part of the film as a whole, or the trailer does not reflect the movie even remotely and I have do a reality check.

    All in all, great actors and cast, inspirational story, the movie itself is a sleeper.

    • I strongly disagree. I think you should go see movies they are amazing. If there is a movie out that i wanna see then i go. I would definatley have a look on your local cinemas websites and see if there is any movies you like the sound of.

      I have once gone to see a film that sounded great but was rubbish.

      I think I just bought a zoo looks great and i am already going to see it and if its great i will post it on here and if its rubbish i will post it on here.

  5. I would see this movie again,

  6. Probably one of the most boring films I have watched. The story line has been done to death. Parent dies, new life changes. Very dull. Didn’t enjoy it at all. The best part was the final credits.

  7. Good movie. I really liked Angus MacFadyen’s role. Can anyone tell what type of knitted hat did he wear and where I can get one? Please help!


  8. My family and I just returned from watching this movie – it made us all laugh! It’s actually a very warm, funny movie – HOWEVER, there are some rather vulgar swear words that could have been left out, since they added nothing to the movie itself. In particular, the sentence that the little girl says to the USDA inspector – that was totally unnecessary and my 9 yr. old daughter even said that she felt sorry for the actress that played the role being forced to say such vulgar words for no reason at all. It added nothing to the movie at all. 4 out of 5 stars.

    • Of course I realize that the phrase was not elegant, but I must say I had to laugh when Rosie used it, because it is so much like a child to tell the person involved what she has heard of him. Remember, children are God’s spies. That is exactly what might have happened had my granddaughter been involved. Coarse or not, it was a bit of comic relief.

    • I don’t know if it was any more indecent or controversial than when the then 5-year-old Mara Wilson said to Sally Field’s character in Mrs. Doubtfire, “We’re his God damn kids, too”. It’s offensive, harsh, and uses God’s name in vain, but I don’t think the movie took any flack for having appeared in a PG-13 rated film, and also recited by a young child. Granted the phrase that Maggie Elizabeth Jones says touches onto more vulgar ground, both scenarios just reiterate the point that adults can put up a front and fake their true thoughts and inclinations; but kids are honest and upfront. No matter how much you want to conceal the truth from someone, the child will be the one to expose it. There is no doubt that what she said was surely on everyone else’s minds in that scene with the inspection agent.

      It’s a lucid demonstration of irony in both cases, that the kid, showing how impressively aware and observant they can be, can play the bigger adult. It served a purpose in ‘We Bought a Zoo’ just in the same way it did in ‘Mrs. Doubtfire,’ however seemingly insignificant and unnecessary the line may be. ‘We Bought a Zoo’ was as much comical as it was dramatic and incredibly moving, with great dialogue and amusing human-to-human and human-to-animal interaction that frequently made me chuckle. It was all harmless humour, and this disputed quote by the actress playing the daughter added a sprinkle more.

  9. I was not anxious to see what I thought was a “Disney” like movie, but since it was an event planned by my eldest son and his wife, I went. While the premise of the story was a bit unusual, the telling of it was typical of movies from the heyday of movies . Contrary to many of the previous comments, I found the acting a delight and the whole story told with affection and humor. There are some awkwardness in some of the situations. but these were minor “blips” in a fine movie.

  10. Took my 7 and 3 year old to see this “feel good family movie” which is clearly not rated appropriately. I am not a stuck up person by any means, and can ignore the fact that they used ahole and s**t, however, when a scene clearly states that the easter bunny is not real and another one where the 7 yr old actress says “dick”, I have to draw the line! Just an ok movie and more appropriate for much older kids who do not believe in the easter bunny ;)

  11. Took my 7 and 3 year old to see this “feel good family movie” which is clearly not rated appropriately. I am not a stuck up person by any means, and can ignore the fact that they used ahole and s*it, however, when a scene clearly states that the easter bunny is not real and another one where the 7 yr old actress says “d*ck”, I have to draw the line! Just an ok movie and more appropriate for much older kids who do not believe in the easter bunny ;)

  12. This was a wonderful feel good movie. Loved every minute of it. Its nice to go to a movie and not see a bunch of profanity and violence. I will buy this movie when it comes out on DVD. Its a very good family oriented movie and shows how a family can overcome tragedy and make something positive out of it. Thank you Cameron Crowe for making this movie.

  13. this movie looks cute. but, i’ll wait till it comes out on t.v

  14. I really honestly found it very easy to get engrossed into this story. Having not read the book, and as vague and inexplicit as the trailer was, I had no idea it would be so emotionally driven and bursting with drama surrounding the frailty of the human condition. All of that just helps to establish credibility and authenticity in the performances, and connect the audience with the characters. What you take away, or at least what I took away from this film, are all the funny moments, cheerful scenes and a perfectly predictable happy ending to tie it all together.

    I left the theatre feeling really quite satisfied, and not only happy that I had gone to finally see the movie, which I had long been debating, but I left also feeling like I had just seen the Oscar-winning picture of 2011. Based on the comments and a lot of the reviews I have read, I’m afraid that I would be at an irrefutable loss on that, but that is my strong feeling about this film. Matt Damon should at least have earned a oscar nomination for his performance. Outstanding, and the movie overall was phenomenally heart-warming and heart-wrenching at the same time.

  15. I do agree with your review, and you brought up an interesting point about the scene with Benjamin (Matt Damon) and Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) sitting on the front porch. But I have to say, I don’t know if dialogue or any verbal exchange between Benjamin and Kelly was necessary in this scene, at least not for the purpose of addressing his feelings and unloading his burden onto her.

    She understands, or at least can accept and respect, the way he is feeling and the pain that envelops him. She knew and appreciated the fact that he needed space to himself to breathe and release some of his emotional strife. All anyone from the outside looking in can do is give this person time, and that’s just what she does as she waits for him on his porch. This explains quite reasonably why Kelly instinctively comes to relieve and, in a way, stand in for Benjamin for a brief time when he suddenly disappears. His kids are missing that in their lives, a mother-figure to bond with and care for them, and in some light she helps to fill that void.

    Everyone copes with tragedy differently, and the family is suffering in their own way. Benjamin is stricken, mourning, rattled and broken, and trying to piece together his life without his wife. Upon his return home from his brief therapeutically-induced hiatus, all he does at first, and all he really needs to do, is grab her hand and just hold it, and in doing that, he tells her he’s there, he’s okay and that he’s sorry for leaving. That moment encounter between them says a great deal, and conveys a stronger connection than words could communicate. It shows how powerful the human touch can be.

    It’s reminiscent of the intimate moment between Russell Crowe and Elizabeth Banks in “The Next 3 Days” following the heart-stopping scene when they nearly collide with the transport truck. Nothing needed to be explained, and no words needed to be said or shared in that moment; for the characters or for the benefit of the audience. Just a touch of the hand said it all.

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  17. I agree with this review with a mom: Took my 7 and 3 year old to see this “feel good family movie” which is clearly not rated appropriately. I am not a stuck up person by any means, and can ignore the fact that they used ahole and s*it, however, when a scene clearly states that the easter bunny is not real and another one where the 7 yr old actress says “d*ck”, I have to draw the line! Just an ok movie and more appropriate for much older kids who do not believe in the easter bunny ;)