The only Matt Damon films I had seen before this one were the Bourne trilogy and 2010’s True Grit, so it was nice to see him as a less aggressive, more father-like figure in We Bought a Zoo. This film wasn’t one that I ever got excited for, which is why I just watched it for the first time on Blu-Ray, and now, even after watching, I have mixed feelings.
Based on the memoir of the same name by Benjamin Mee, We Bought a Zoo follows a father (Damon) and his two children six months after the mother has died. They’re still hurting and trying to move on with their lives, so it just seems too perfect when the opportunity to buy a zoo rolls around to give them a fresh start. The 7-year-old daughter, Rosie, is filled with wisdom beyond her years, and not just in the “kids say the darnedest things” sort of way; her father literally goes to her for advice or for serious adult conversation more than once in the film. The son, Dylan, is the typical 14-year-old teenager: filled with angst, thinks his father hates him, etc. He is also a talented artist who has recently begun drawing disturbing images, such as a head being severed from the body. Why a dead mother would warrant such graphic drawings, I’m not sure, but, then again, I’m no psychology expert.
In the zoo, there is an aging Bengal tiger who is just about at the end of his life, but Damon’s character, despite the pleas by the lead zookeeper (Scarlett Johansson), insists on doing whatever he can to prolong this tiger’s life. I think that this is supposed to be a metaphor for his relationship to his dead wife and his unwillingness to let her go, but it’s a weak comparison. At least, I certainly wouldn’t equate ending a dying tiger’s struggle for life to a widower’s struggle to move on after losing his wife, but that’s just me. But alas, with the decision to put the tiger out of his misery comes a mended relationship between father and son and a possibility at new love for Damon’s character.
The dialogue was particularly irritating to me at times, mainly because it used “man” constantly, as if this was The Big Lebowski or something like that. It starts with Thomas Haden Church’s character, brother to Damon’s, calling him “man” all the time, but it gets so bad that, near the end of the film, Damon’s character has a yell match with his son, calling him “man” at least 15 times, give or take a few. Its usage does nothing but distracts…it just makes no sense to me! The score by Jónsi was distracting at times as well, sometimes not matching the scene even remotely. However, when it did match the scene, the music did a nice job of sounding the whimsy of the story.
Anyway, while I did have a lot of complaints, We Bought a Zoo worked well as a family film, with Damon’s performance carrying the film and Johansson doing a decent job. Church’s performance felt forced to me, with the fact that he’s supposed to be playing the brother to the main character being nearly completely lost to me; there’s absolutely no brotherly connection between the two of them. Maggie Elizabeth Jones as Rosie will make you smile frequently with her sweet comments and adorable smile, and the story is saccharine and predictable enough to please just about anyone who enjoys that kind of thing. I didn’t dislike it, but it’s certainly not a movie that I would like to own for myself.
Rating: 2.5 (out of 5)
MPAA: PG – for language and some thematic elements