It is not a family film in the sense of “Hey, kids, let’s go watch some fairy tale characters make wisecracks or an animated (fill in the animal) fight, so you can laugh and mom and dad can have a little peace!” That has its place, but “We Bought a Zoo” is not that film.
There are no talking animals. No pratfalls, although there are funny moments. No jokes about poop.
Instead, it is a beautiful and well-rendered movie for families about families. Everyone in the family will find something to enjoy in this gem and everyone in the family will be moved and, hopefully, enlarged.
Matt Damon stars as Benjamin, a father still hopelessly in love with his recently deceased wife. The unalterable fact of her death has not changed his love for her or his need for her. His children, seven year old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and Dylan (Colin Ford) need her as well. Her absence is the biggest presence in the home.
So Benjamin moves and finds adventure. He buys a home that has a small zoo attached and comes complete with an eccentric crew of animal caregivers. Kelly Foster (an earthy and earnest Scarlett Johansson) leads the gang and her niece (Elle Fanning) works in the snack bar. While Benjamin worries about his children, Kelly worries about the upcoming visit by Inspector Ferris (the hilarious John Michael Higgins), which will determine if the zoo can reopen or must close forever.
Benjamin, Rosie, and Dylan set off to mend fences, raise peacocks, enlarge exhibits, and habituate snakes, but what they’re really doing is trying to move on. Maybe they can believe in something and share something besides the gaping hole in their lives.
Lions, tigers, and bears, plus a few monkeys and porcupines fill their days. The human inhabitants are only slightly less weird, especially the habitat designer who has a primal, murderous dislike for Inspector Ferris.
Without being cute or sentimental, the film has some fine moments of loss and reconnection that will bring a tear to your eye. Director Cameron Crowe (Jerry MaGuire, Almost Famous) brings a deft touch to what could be overdone. Damon is fantastic as a dad completely, totally in over his head but also completely, totally committed. Maggie Jones is adorable while Colin Ford gives a complex performance as a boy who not only has to deal with his mother’s death, but adolescence and moving to boot. Johansson ramps down her usual sexiness, although she can never be truly unattractive, and gives us a character more comfortable with animals than humans.
Rated PG, the film has no sexuality. However, the themes of loss and death, both animal and human, may be disturbing to some children. The outcome is ultimately hopeful. Also, there is occasional language.
This film has sadness, to be sure, but in the end we feel good. It is not only a movie that is okay for families to watch, completely unobjectionable, but it is a movie that will bring families a little closer and make them a little stronger.
And that’s one of the hallmarks of the holidays.