We Bought a Zoo — in which a family buys a zoo — does what it says on the tin and if you like this sort of film you will like this and if you don’t you won’t, and you have to ask yourself why you buy The Spectator every week? It’s for analysis like this which, I think you will find, is unavailable elsewhere. But do I like this sort of film? Actually, I rather do. There are no surprises. It is comfortingly straight up and down. It is heartwarming, to the extent you can buy it. There are animals: lions, tigers, a grizzly bear, and a funny little monkey. I found it a perfectly agreeable way to spend the two hours I would otherwise waste and you may feel similarly if this is the sort of film you like, but probably not if you don’t.
Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) directs this true story about a single father, Benjamin Mee, who decides he and his two children need a fresh start so purchases a rundown zoo, as you do. Mee’s real-life memoir is actually set in Dartmoor, but this transposes the action to California, which is fair enough, and probably sunnier, if less of a granite upland dating from the Carboniferous period of geological history capped with granite hilltops known as ‘tors’. When the film opens, Mee (Matt Damon) is struggling to hold together his family and his LA journalism job after the death of his wife, Katherine. (Thankfully, at least he doesn’t also have to brace himself for tors this time out.) He has a 14-year-old boy, Dylan (Colin Ford), and a seven-year-old girl, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), and has yet to get a grip. He forgets to make packed lunches, which is always a telltale sign. Dylan is a particular worry, as he is emotionally withdrawn and spends most of his time drawing grisly death images in a sketchbook, which is never good, and who is to say if he’ll be healed by the end of this movie? Who, who, who? Mee is grieving sorely himself, but seems a confident sort of fellow and, before even purchasing the zoo, does what any dad with a couple of kids to raise would also do: he quits the job. (Thinking this a bit fishy, I looked up the real Benjamin Mee, and discovered he wrote a short weekly DIY column for the Guardian, but I’m guessing quitting your short weekly DIY column in the Guardian just isn’t that sexy.)
So, he quits his job, and sells the house, and takes the kids out of school, and buys this zoo, which has been closed for a while, has fallen into disrepair, and has only been kept going by the goodwill of the remaining employees, like Kelly, The World’s Most Gorgeous Zookeeper, as played by Scarlett Johansson. She tries to hide her gorgeousness under a dowdy headscarf, and by always carrying a bucket, but I could see it. Each character is given a problem to overcome. Will Mee learn to look at another woman? Will Kelly put her bucket down for long enough to realise she could be that woman? Will Dylan bond with Lily (Elle Fanning), a teenager who seems to live at the zoo for no other reason than to bond with Dylan and cure him of the mopes? Will the zoo be restored to its former glory? Will Spar, the elderly Bengal tiger, teach everyone a lesson about death? Will Bruno, the grizzly, get his bigger enclosure? Will a meteor plunge from the sky and wipe them all out? I don’t want to give out any spoilers here, but will say only one of the above is answered with a ‘no’.
I could pick this movie to bits. It is overlong. Mee’s grief is milked, milked, milked at the expense of the animals. It is packed with clichés, romantic and otherwise. But Damon provides a warm and rather charming performance, while Maggie Elizabeth Jones is a natural, and there is some comedy in the form of the villainous zoo inspector (John Michael Higgins) and Mee’s sardonic, accountant brother, Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), who urges Mee not to buy a zoo from the off. (My accountant is much the same. ‘Deborah, buy a printer by all means,’ he always says, ‘but, please, not a zoo.’) Everything is, indeed, tied up exactly the way you know it will be tied up, because it is that sort of film, but it still provides a perfectly agreeable way to spend the two hours you weren’t going to do anything with anyway.