Zoo film more fun than barrel of monkeys

'We Bought a Zoo' offers good story pace, relatable characters

By Matt Rooney

Some people when they reach a crisis in their life go to Europe. They go and try to find themselves. Others buy fancy cars to make them feel better about themselves.

But for Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a former foreign correspondent and "adventure writer," he decides to start all over again after the death of his wife. He does so by doing what no one else would, or can do—buys a failing zoo.

"We Bought a Zoo" is a true story brought to life by Cameron Crowe ("Jerry Maguire," "Vanilla Sky") about a man coming to terms with his wife's death while dealing with his two kids, Dylan (Colin Ford) and Rosie (Maggie Jones). Crowe is a talented filmmaker as he is one of the great modern humanists. He's good at understanding people in very realistic situations and dealing with people overcoming obstacles. This is no different.

Benjamin is a man who is not clinging to his wife's death and trying to let go like in most movies. Instead, he is a man avoiding everything relating to his wife and must find a way to cope.

Of course, as the movie title suggests, he finds this through working at a zoo with the few staff members still on the premises. One is the zookeeper, played by the talented Scarlett Johansson, and she has little faith that the rest do not.

There is also conflict within the family in the form of his son, who is also struggling with his mother's death. He copes by delving into his drawings that border on a serial killer-esque style. The relationship has its moments but sort of flops along in the middle, never resulting in much.

But like most true stories, not every aspect is incredibly detailed. It's the job of the director, however, to focus on the parts that matter and the aspects that make it special. This comes in the form of incredible charm of the characters, especially Rosie, who is a constant source of sunshine and the immense amount of heart that is constant in the tone.

The story moves along smoothly. Ben encounters struggles like debt and doubt. But it's all to make him stronger, and each outcome gets him closer to realizing what he must do. One touching moment toward the end is when he looks at old photos of his wife and relives some of his happiest memories. It's a similar scene in his earlier film this year, "Contagion," but this had much more impact because the whole movie leads up to it.

There are small bumps, especially in points dealing with the son and his inner emotions as well as his budding relationship with a girl named Lily (Elle Fanning). But they are only minor bumps and easily explained away.

Is it a perfect movie? No. It has a basic story structure that accompanies the majority of true stories and is not a big issue. What's important, and is Crowe's specialty, is relating the characters and finding a way to relate. This is accomplished with undeniable charm and insurmountable heart. This makes the funny moments hilarious and the deeper scenes heartfelt.

This is a well-made movie made by a perfectly chosen Crowe and a properly cast Damon in one of his best roles that deserves some award attention. This doesn't come out until Christmas, and I was lucky to attend an early showing. It's worth the wait, as it is not a direct holiday movie but has the perfect amount of warmth and delight that make it one of the best films of the holiday season and of the year.

3.5 stars (or going to the zoo is about triple the price, but this film experience is priceless.)

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"We Bought a Zoo" official site

"We Bought a Zoo" on IMDb