Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘We Bought a Zoo’: All You Need in Life Is 20 Seconds of Insane, Embarrassing Courage

April 25, 2021 Updated: May 31, 2021

PG | | Comedy, Drama, Family | 23 December 2011 (USA)

“We Bought a Zoo” (2011) was an instant children’s movie classic based on a true story. Englishman Benjamin Mee is a thrill-seeking adventure columnist for The Guardian newspaper, who’s made a living doing things like hunting killer bees and flying into the eye of hurricanes. He lives in the South of France.

Newspapers eventually didn’t have enough money for this type of extravagant reporting, so Benjamin quit. His wife died from a brain tumor six months prior to the time that this story starts, leaving him to bring up their 7-year-old daughter, Rosie, and rebellious 13-year-old son, Dylan.

Said son is not handling his mom’s death well, and when Dylan’s dark and disturbing drawings of decapitations get him expelled from school, dad Benjamin gives himself over to a whirlwind of change. He goes house hunting. After a long search, his real estate agent shows him a fantastic house in Devon, England. It’s got one major complication, though—it comes with a zoo attached, and Benjamin ends up spending his savings, inheritance, and the money he made from selling his previous home to get it.

That’s all actually from the book. The movie version is set in California; Benjamin Mee is played by Matt Damon, and the real estate agent is played by the hilarious J.B. Smoove.

 a crowd of people enter a zoo in We Bought a Zoo
(L–R) Matt Damon, Carla Gallo, Scarlett Johansson, Patrick Fugit, Elle Fanning, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, and Colin Ford, in “We Bought a Zoo.” (Neal Preston/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Ben’s daughter, Rosie, cuter-than-cute (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), twists daddy around her little finger thusly: “You don’t have to take a picture. We’re going to live here.”

little girl in brown uniform in We Bought a Zoo
Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), in “We Bought a Zoo.” (Neal Preston/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

The Zoo

The zoo still has a skeleton crew, the backbone of which is the ever-responsible, 27-year-old workaholic Kelly (Scarlett Johansson). She’s initially skeptical of Benjamin’s ability to stay the course once the massive commitment he’s undertaken dawns on him.

woman stands in doorway in We Bought a Zoo
Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), in “We Bought a Zoo.” (Neal Preston/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Closed for two years, the zoo’s got lions, a tiger, and 48 other species, many endangered. It needs a major overhaul and someone serious about investing the time, effort, and finances to take charge of it, or the animals and remaining staff won’t survive.

It’s a challenge that Benjamin is willing to take on, even though he has only four months to get all the various dilapidated structures up to spec in time for a July opening. The Mees soon discover that life is no longer all about “me”(es); they have to put the needs of others first: Multiple animals need constant feeding and medication.

boy and man with poster in We Bought a Zoo
Dylan (Colin Ford, L) and dad Benjamin (Matt Damon), in “We Bought a Zoo.” (Neal Preston/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Benjamin’s older, accountant brother (the hysterical Thomas Haden Church) tries to steer his brother clear of the impending financial disaster: “Travel the stages of grief, but stop just before zebras get involved.”

There’s much preparation for the upcoming zoo inspection. Snooty, tape-measure-brandishing state inspector Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins) is somewhat predictably but also delightfully arch as the villain, who is, naturally, a main source of tension driving the movie. Higgins as Ferris has a ton of fun nitpicking, hair-splitting, and reveling in his power to veto licenses for such small-fry, mom-and-pop zoos. 

Cast

It’s a talented A-list cast creating well-defined characters, which meshes nicely with the animal-actor cast, each of which also becomes a well-defined personality.

Damon, 41 at the time, is hugely sympathetic, working through his grief (“If only I could talk to her about getting over her”). His character is, of course, constantly chased by many hopeful women; his refrigerator’s packed to the gills with lasagnas of longing.

The zoo crew includes Kelly’s 13-year-old cousin Lily (Elle Fanning), who waitresses at the zoo restaurant; a mechanical whiz who drinks too much (Angus Macfadyen, Robert the Bruce from “Braveheart”); and a staff guy who’s always got a capuchin monkey on his shoulder (Patrick Fugit from “Almost Famous”).

As mentioned, the animal “actors” are an integral part of the cast: It’s a bit magical to get up close to the regal Bengal tiger “Spar” and hear his wide range of animal speech. Priceless for children is the scene in which Johansson demonstrates how tigers “chuff” instead of roar (like lions), and how they chuff in response, when someone speaks their language.

man and tiger in We Bought a Zoo
Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) makes friends with Spar the tiger in the zoo he now owns, in “We Bought a Zoo.” (Neal Preston/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

The dramatic scenes between father and son demonstrate that actors really are a tribe—when working, they’re all equals, regardless of age. In the movie’s most dramatic scene, Damon blasts young Colin, and Colin chews the scenery right back at him with equal power.

The romantic chemistry between Benjamin and Kelly keeps you rooting for them, and the puppy love between Dylan and Lily is very touching.

All in All

One of the movie’s best teachings is the concept that if one commits to “20 seconds of insane, embarrassing courage” to attain things one desires, good things will always come of it. We see examples of this demonstrated on various occasions, especially as a pep talk from father to son to get Dylan to go a-courting the lovely Lily.

Will Rosemoor Animal Park be returned to its former glory? Will it pass muster? Will the sick tiger live? Will the escaped grizzly cause the zoo to get shut down? Will people show up? Will Benjamin and Kelly hit it off? Ditto for the younger couple?

man, woman, and zebra in We Bought a Zoo
Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is a Southern Californian father who moves his young family to the countryside to renovate and reopen a struggling zoo, assisted by Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), in “We Bought a Zoo.” (Neal Preston/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

One thing is for certain: “We Bought a Zoo” will not require covering your children’s eyes and ears every two minutes. It’s guaranteed to deliver some solid life lessons and leave everyone a little bit teary-eyed and smiling.

Yes, there’s no denying 2011’s “We Bought a Zoo” is a movie by Cameron Crowe and shares most if not all of the Crowe formula, such as the main character reassessing his life, a fun love interest, an adorable child, and super-infectious pop tunes compliments of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Cat Stevens, and Tom Petty on the soundtrack. Think “Say Anything,” “Jerry Maguire,” and “Almost Famous.”

movie poster for We Bought a Zoo
Movie poster for “We Bought a Zoo.” (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

‘We Bought a Zoo’
Director: Cameron Crowe
Starring: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Thomas Haden Church, Patrick Fugit, Elle Fanning, Angus Macfadyen, John Michael Higgins, J.B. Smoove, Peter Riegert
Rating: PG
Running Time: 2 hours, 4 minutes
Release Date: Dec. 23, 2011
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years experience as a professional New York actor, a classical theater training, a BA in philosophy, and recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook, “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World”: https://www.thespecterofcommunism.com/en/audiobook/
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