Ever been to Dartmoor Zoological Park? Well you might just now after seeing We Bought a Zoo, the new release by Director Cameron Crowe, focusing on the real life story of Benjamin Mee, the journalist who, in 2006, bought a zoo.
Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is a recent widower who, after struggling to get used to life without his wife as well as trying to raise his two children alone, decides that the family need something new, a fresh start. Searching the local property listing with his young daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), they find the perfect house. It has 70 plus acres, plenty of open space, a beautiful cottage style home and about three lions, four tigers, porcupines and exotic snakes all in their backyard. Oh yes, the place that has captured their hearts is indeed a run-down zoo that hasn’t had a proper owner for an age but is simply managed by its ever caring staff. Wanting to not give up on his new start, Benjamin decides to buy the zoo, relocate his family there and take on the challenges that it brings. His son, Dylan (Colin Ford) is naturally against the move as he will be away from his friends and the new dark and sombre life he has built for himself since his mother passed. Benjamin’s brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church) doesn’t understand and thinks his brother should take on something much less risky – like a few nights out on the town.
The zoo comes with its own collection of characters – and we’re not even talking about the animals. Head Keeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) keeps the zoo in check while watching over her 13 year-old cousin Lily (Elle Fanning) who lives, works and is schooled on the zoo grounds. There is also an often-drunk Scotsman called MacCready (played by an almost unrecognisable Angus Macfadyen) who builds all the enclosures for the animals.
Benjamin’s high spirits with the zoo do take several nosedives as he is constantly writing cheques to cover the zoo’s costs whilst his son becomes more and more distant from him. He also has a battle with Zoo Inspector Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins) as the park needs to pass its inspection before it can reopen in a month. Whilst all of this goes on, Benjamin is still staying up most of the night grieving for his wife Katherine.
The story of We Bought a Zoo is charming and the family’s journey with both the zoo itself and with each other is touching. Crowe moves the real location from Devon, England to South California but it still works. The real story is put in the forefront to hopefully gain some international fans. We at Roobla attended the screening of the film featuring a Q&A with the real Benjamin Mee and he said that what attracted Crowe to the story was its truth. This family had really bought a zoo, grieved through the death of their loved one and faced all the many doubters head on.
Matt Damon is the perfect choice as Benjamin because not only is his a fantastic actor, he is also a brilliant writer and understands story. Being a father himself, he could put himself in that place of thinking about working all of his life out on his own without his partner, how he would cope and what he would do for his children – something that comes across onscreen. Some people may say he looks a little bit over weight, tired and dishevelled from his usually svelte self in the film; however how would a father who lost his wife six months ago and who suddenly finds himself the only being in their two children’s lives look? Damon has the ability to truly show you a character and that is what he does in spades. Scenes where he is looking at photos of him and his wife are particularly heart-breaking.
Scarlett Johansson still manages to look beautiful even without a shred of make up on and, even though it’s hard to believe a zoo keeper looks like this, she plays the part of Kelly well. She shows tenderness not only towards the family but also towards her job. Her chemistry with Damon is subtle and caring and it works well in the film’s plot. However, there is one other girl who will always take the spotlight away from the stunning Johansson and that is little Maggie Elizabeth Jones who plays daughter Rosie Mee. This little girl is so naturally talented she just melts your heart. Her expressions and her comic timing really add the extra sweetness to the film without it being sickly.
The whole film is beautifully directed with its gorgeous California scenery within the zoo and, knowing this is based on the true story of a family (even with a few American movie embellishments), it still stays very true to its original message and never forgets it. This is hopefully going to make the Dartmoor Zoological Park very popular now and continue the Mee’s five year journey of making the Zoo always a place for animals to be cared for, loved and appreciated.
Best scene: The porcupine scene / the enclosure scene with Spar, Benjamin and Dylan.
Best performance: Matt Damon.
Best line: Rosie to Walter Ferris – ‘You know everyone here thinks you’re a dick. I don’t know what that means, but I don’t’.
The real Benjamin Mee, his son Milo and daughter Ella are the first family seen at the end.