He bought a house with a zoo in the backyard. Tigers. Kangaroos. Ostriches. A lion. All told, 200 animals are penned up out there. What kind of an insane man does that? One like Benjamin Mee.
To him, it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. He and his kids certainly needed a new beginning. After losing his wife, Katherine, things sort of drifted into a toothache-like state of endless grief for Benjamin. And his kids? Well, little Rosie, his precocious 7-year-old, seems to be faring a bit better. Perhaps that's the resilience of childhood. Six months have helped her (almost) spring back to full bloom. Moody teen Dylan, though, has withered. His grades have tanked. He's been stealing. And the only thing he seems to be able to do well is churn out dark drawings of decapitated men and other horrors.
So Benjamin quits his job at the failing newspaper and goes house hunting. (He has his savings and an inheritance from his father.) And wouldn't you know it, he finds the perfect place: a fabulous old house on the outskirts of town with 18 acres of land. It's perfect for the kids.
Part of the property deal is that he has to restore the animal park connected to the house to operational status again. There's a motley zoo crew, headed by Kelly, that'll help. But the money's quickly running out. And none of this is stopping Dylan from simmering like a latched-down pressure cooker.
Now Benjamin's thinking exactly what you were thinking when you started reading this review: How could he have bought a house … with a zoo attached?!
Benjamin had found everything he could have hoped for in his soul mate and wife, Katherine. And the movie celebrates the joy and life-changing power of a committed marriage and loving relationship. It also explores the great pain that comes with the loss of a person loved so much. Long after his wife's death (from an unspecified disease), Benjamin tries to sum up his ongoing anguish with, "When you love somebody that much, that hard, that long, you can't get away from them." It's made clear, however, that it is possible—with time and a connection to other loving relationships—to find a way past the debilitating pain.
Benjamin and Dylan clash repeatedly. But with effort they begin to open up about the anger, hurt and frustration they both keep bottled up. Benjamin struggles but makes every effort to help his kids see how much he loves them and is devoted to them. Suspended from school for stealing money, Dylan blames the person who left the cash out, asking what else he was expected to do. But Benjamin makes it clear that that choice is never acceptable. "You stole. That breaks my heart," he tells his son.
When Rosie confesses to her dad that she's afraid she's losing her memory of what her mom looked and sounded like, he reminds her to "catch her spirit." What that amounts to, for them, is seeing Mom in each other and holding her to their hearts.
Benjamin's brother Duncan believes buying the zoo is utter insanity and warns against such a foolish idea. But Benjamin insists to Duncan and the zoo's crew that rebuilding the animal park is an important goal he's dedicated to. Eventually Duncan comes around to support his brother in whatever way he can.
Benjamin tells Duncan that the good advice his brother once gave him about finding 20 seconds of courage in frightening situations has "guided me my entire life." In fact, Benjamin passes that nugget along to his son, illustrating the benefit of being brave when you feel the most unnerved with a story about meeting Katherine.
Duncan exclaims, "Thank God for that." Benjamin and his kids acknowledge that Katherine must be fully aware of the adventure they're undertaking.
Duncan wants his wounded sibling to get out and start being social. And by that he means dating and become sexually active again. When Benjamin complains that one woman keeps calling him to go hiking with her, Duncan blurts out, "Benjamin, hike her!" We see other women hitting on Benjamin: One gives him a lasagna for his family's dinner and makes it plain that she wouldn't mind joining them. When he walks by a group of mothers in the school parking lot, they eye him approvingly.
The state zoo inspector isn't shy about openly ogling Kelly. One of the crew tells her, "Well, Farris lusts you." She tells them she refuses to "take one for the team." Kelly is drawn to Benjamin, but she's up front about her dedication to the job and keeps her distance. Benjamin finds her attractive as well, but realizes that he's not ready for a relationship quite yet. "I want you to know I think you're incredibly pretty," he tells her. "But I don't want you to be offended that I don't hit on you." She retorts with, "I'd be offended if you did." Still, Kelly and Benjamin find themselves in a close closet-like place and fall into a kiss, repeated several times.
We see a photograph of a pregnant and topless Katherine posed with her arm strategically shielding her breasts.
Dylan's drawings are disturbing in their details: A wall mural, for instance, depicts a man whose head is ripped off his body—revealing torn flesh, spattering blood and a jaggedly broken backbone.
When a 750 lb grizzly bear breaks out of its enclosure, Benjamin and other staff members grab guns and take out after him. Benjamin comes face to face with the animal: It knocks his weapon out of his hand and roars in his face. But before the bear can harm him, someone shoots the beast with a tranquilizer dart.
Benjamin jumps over a fence to avoid the wrath of a pair of porcupines, ending up sprawled full-out in a briar patch.
Crude or Profane Language
Four s-words. A handful each of "d‑‑n," "a‑‑" and "h‑‑‑." We hear the anatomical put-down "d‑‑k" once. Jesus' name is blasphemed once; God's is misused several times. "Freakin'" stands in for that other f-word.
Drug and Alcohol Content
A party next door to the Mees is stocked with young adults drinking bottled beer. The zookeepers have a small common area, complete with a bar, where they often relax, socialize and drink beer and liquor. Benjamin drinks a beer with them. One of the zoo's crew members is a large man who gets drunk several times and rages on about killing a guy who has stolen many of his designs for animal enclosures. We see a number of pictures of Katherine in and out of social settings, and in several she has a glass of wine or champagne in hand.
The grizzly is said to have been on the drug Paxil to manage stress levels.
Other Negative Elements
About to be attacked by the lion, a zoo staffer screams at it, "You don't want me. I'm filled with Scotch, bitterness and impure thoughts!" Kelly and Benjamin discuss the difference between enclosures and cages: "My brief marriage, that was a cage," she explains.
If you've seen We Bought a Zoo's zebra-in-a-green-bow promotional poster you may have automatically started thinking about goofy pratfalls and maybe even a talking menagerie. Or if you saw its trailer, you could have been left with the impression that this is a "hapless guy falls for a pretty zookeeper" romantic comedy.
But in fact the movie is more closely represented by a quote I once saw from author and grief expert Hilary Stanton Zunin: "The risk of love is loss, and the price of loss is grief—But the pain of grief is only a shadow when compared with the pain of never risking love."
This is a film about a family in mourning that must somehow find a way to love again. Dad and his kids have to heal and rebuild lives for themselves. And they do it by, of all things, saving a zoo.
It's not all tears and angst and recovery therapy, of course. A bit of comedy comes along to rescue the mood. A dash of romance rebuilds faith in the beauty of relationship. Earnest sentimentality and even a touch of whimsy lend a boost of buoyancy.
What doesn't is the foul language and alcohol. The acting is impressive, the story good and the end result tender. But the PG rating and the feel-good family dramedy marketing makes this seem like a movie for kids looking for talking zebras and a blast of goofy holly jolly. Believe that and I've got a bridge you can buy right after you've signed the papers on the zoo.
A postscript: The DVD and Blu-ray discs of We Bought a Zoo feature an "English Family Friendly Audio Track" that can be selected from the play menu. It replaces certain swear words with less-objectionable exclamations. "Shoot" and "rascal," for instance, stand in for uses of the s-word and "a‑‑hole." But the swear-word substitutions aren't universal. Interjections of "h‑‑‑," "d‑‑mit" and an unfinished "holy s—," for example, are still audible.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Scarlett Johansson as Kelly Foster; Matt Damon as Benjamin Mee; Elle Fanning as Lily Miska; Colin Ford as Dylan Mee; Maggie Elizabeth Jones as Rosie Mee; Thomas Haden Church as Duncan Mee
Cameron Crowe (Elizabethtown, Vanilla Sky, Almost Famous)
20th Century Fox
December 23, 2011
Bob Hoose Bob Hoose