We Bought A Zoo (2011)
Starring Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson
Directed by Cameron Crowe
You know the biggest crime this movie commits? There are meerkats in this movie for a grand total of 5 seconds. How dare they? If you’re going to put meerkats in a movie, you better put them in at least every second scene. I don’t care about the lions and tigers and bears (oh my)(yes, I couldn’t resist. Nothing to see here). If you’re going to tempt with meerkats, you better deliver.
And that’s my biggest problem with this movie. That’s the worst criticism I could think of for We Bought A Zoo. And that’s because I really enjoyed it.
Matt Damon plays widower Benjamin Mee, father of two kids. The family, still dealing with the death of Benjamin’s wife, decide to make a new start and buy a run down zoo. Alongside a staff of eccentric characters, headed up by Scarlett Johansson’s zookeeper Kelly, the Mee’s struggle to get the zoo operational in time for the big re-opening. There are a stack of obstacles to overcome here: financial troubles, escaped animals, antagonistic inspectors, but because this is one of those “triumphing against all odds” kind of stories, the reward is worth it.
Cameron Crow has this great ability to pull very real and heart warming performances from his actors. Every one here is like-able, even when, in the hands of another director, they would be tedious and annoying. The relationship between Damon and Johansson’s characters never feels forced. There’s a chemistry there that never feels manipulative. It never felt like Johansson was there just to provide Matt Damon someone to fall in love with by the end of the movie. Because it’s not that kind of movie. A stand out, however, is the budding romantic relationship between the two teenage cast members. Crowe is responsible for one of my all time favourite movies, Almost Famous. The way he was able to capture the beauty of teenage love in that movie carries through here. Though it’s a little weird that Lily is a dead ringer, both in appearance and performance, for Almost Famous’ Kate Hudson. And Dylan is a dead ringer for Patrick Fugit, Almost Famous’ lead. Which is even weirder because Patrick Fugit also stars in We Bought A Zoo as one of the zoo staff. It must have been a strange experience for Fugit to watch his mini me get his trademark scenes. Oh well, at least he got to perform with a monkey on his shoulder in every scene (stupid monkey, why couldn’t you have been a meerkat?).
You could be fooled into thinking that We Bought A Zoo is about… well, you know, a Zoo. But it isn’t. It’s not really even a family friendly drama about a group of underdogs, though that is there. No, this story is about death. The Mee family have experienced the loss that comes with death and are struggling to deal with how it affects them. Benjamin is still in love with his wife and feels trapped because everywhere he goes reminds him of her. And that hurts. Teenage son Dylan doesn’t have the emotional vocabulary to express his pain so he hides behind dark artwork and anger. Seven year old daughter Rosie tries to be the glue that holds everything together but she is scared that she is already find it difficult to remember what her mother looked like. Death has had a massive impact on this family. We Bought A Zoo is a movie about death and grief. It’s about moving on.
Death leaves scars. The loss and hurt it creates damages people. It damages relationships. And while we may move on, those scars remain. We are built to be people in relationships. We are made to be people who live and love together. And death stands in opposition to that. We can pick up the pieces. We can mend the relationships we have with those who are still with us. But true, complete healing can’t happen while death is still allowed to exist in this world.
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:54-57)
Jesus has defeated death. And we long for the day when Jesus will return and death will be obliterated from this world. Where is your sting, Death? Jesus has risen from the dead and has promised to bring us with him into eternal life. That’s something worth looking forward to!
I wasn’t sure if We Bought A Zoo was going to be a cheesy cry fest. It could have easily been an overly manipulative, sappy movie. But it isn’t. Sure, there’s some tears to be had. But overall, it’s uplifting and engaging. There’s no explosions and not nearly enough meerkats, but don’t let that stop you from catching this great movie.