“We Bought a Zoo” is based on the true story of British journalist Benjamin Mee, a reporter who always put himself on the front lines for a story and earned a well-deserved reputation for his fearlessness. One of his dreams was to open a zoo, and he did just that by taking over the dilapidated Dartmoor Zoo in Plymouth, England.
But “We Bourgh a Zoo” is set in the United States, which may contribute to the irony that a film based on a true story has so many plot points that just don’t feel authentic.
Cameron Crowe, the writer and director of such outstanding films as “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Jerry Maguire,” and “Almost Famous,” has shifted the locale from Great Britain to Southern California. Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) is a recent widower who is taking care of his two kids, the rebellious teen Dylan (Colin Ford) and his overly precocious 7-year-old daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones).
Dylan, a talented but moody artist, has a tendency to get expelled from schools and draw paintings of decapitations and other gruesome occurrences. Does Benjamin call in a mental health professional to meet with his son? Of course not! At a press conference promoting the film, Cameron Crowe conceded that Dylan may be too dark a character.
Benjamin is having problems at work, as his editor Delbert McGinty (Peter Riegert) hasn’t run his pieces recently and rejects his latest proposal for an article. What does Benjamin do? He quits in a huff even though Delbert begs him not to. His boss graciously says that he’ll lay him off just so he can collect unemployment. Despite the rough economy, and having to take care of a family, Benjamin’s pride bizarrely makes him reject any compensation made out of pity.
With no job and a son expelled from school, Benjamin decides that everyone needs a change of scenery. Rosie sees a house that she loves and Benjamin decides the place is perfect as well. The only problem is that in order to buy his desired abode he has to also purchase the rundown Rosemoor Zoo, which has been operated by the state of California ever since its previous owner died.
Despite having no experience taking care of animals, Benjamin gives it a go, and puts a fortune into fixing up the zoo in the hopes of getting it open in six months. He is helped by a skeptical but able staff led by head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson).
Of course Murphy’s Law kicks in and whatever can go wrong, does. Solomon the Lion nearly breaks out of his cage; Buster the Bear does find a way out of his enclosure and nearly devours Benjamin; finally, the zoo’s main attraction, a beloved 17 year-old tiger Spar, is lethargic and may have to be put to sleep.
Then just when it looks as if the ship has been righted, we are informed that San Diego County is being hit with Biblical rains, which is highly unusual for any time of the year, let alone July.
“We Bought A Zoo” is hoping to be a holiday family film but is actually a rather dark movie over which the topic of death always hovers. The final scene, in which Benjamin shows his kids the restaurant where he met his late wife, is particularly cloying. Crowe would have us believe that Benjamin’s deceased wife comes back to life at the table where they met back in the 1990s, and that his kids start talking to her. “Hi Mommy!” screams Rosie.
“We Bought a Zoo” does have some positive attributes. The lead actors, Damon and Scarlett Johansson, are terrific and do the best that they can with a flawed script. JB Smoove, who plays a novice real estate agent; John Michael Higgins, who portrays fastidious zoo inspector Walter Ferris; and Thomas Haden Church who takes on the role of Benjamin’s brother Duncan, provide much needed comic relief. The yeoman work of those who toil in zoos worldwide for little remuneration is nicely saluted.
Unfortunately, however, the awful plot contrivances of “We Bought a Zoo” make you feel as if you’ve spent too much time in the elephant house when you leave the theater.