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We Bought A Zoo—movie review

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
December 23, 2011 1:00 AM
13 Comments
  • |

If your favorite descriptive word for a movie is “edgy,” you might want to skip this one. If, however, you like heartwarming—not cloying—stories about decent people, and hope to leave the theater feeling better than you did when you walked in, We Bought a Zoo will be a welcome cup of holiday cheer. Rated PG, it is intended to please a family audience, so the timing is perfect.

Cynics may call it predictable, but that’s only partly true. You can tell from the start that the story will have a happy ending, and that the damaged characters will be made whole. But this film is more about the journey than the destination, and in the hands of director Cameron Crowe (working from a screenplay he wrote with Aline Brosh McKenna, from Benjamin Mee’s memoir) it offers considerable pleasure along the way.

Matt Damon is well cast as a widower who after six months is still having a hard time dealing with the loss of his wife, which has left him as sole parent of a troubled 14-year-old son and an adorable 7-year-old daughter. Haunted by memories of his wife wherever he goes, he decides that the family needs to start anew, and house-hunting leads him to a beautiful plot of land that’s home to an abandoned animal park. To his daughter’s delight and his son’s dismay, he buys the property and takes on the daunting responsibility of fixing up the zoo and dealing with its many challenges—alongside a small but dedicated staff, led by Scarlett Johansson.

The supporting cast includes Thomas Haden Church, as Damon’s loving but smart-mouthed brother, Elle Fanning, as a sweet, homeschooled girl who develops a crush on Damon’s son, Patrick Fugit (the memorable protagonist of Crowe’s Almost Famous) as one of the zookeepers, John Michael Higgins, as an intimidating state inspector, and J.B. Smoove, as a colorful realtor who leads Damon to his new home. Some of these players are archetypes as much as characters, but they serve their purpose. More important, the actors who play Damon’s kids, Colin Ford and Maggie Elizabeth Jones, are completely believable.

How often do we get to see a movie in which a loving family, faced with challenges, finds a way to reconnect and grow stronger? This may not be considered cutting-edge storytelling, but I can’t think of anything more relevant or worthwhile

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13 Comments

  • Sarah | June 28, 2014 6:17 PMReply

    Hi never wrote to anyone about a film or product, but watched the film we bought a zoo a few weeks ago , and keep watching it , love true stories , what an absolutely amazing film Wow

  • Brooke Z | April 8, 2012 6:29 PMReply

    About to watch this movie on pay per view. I sure hope its good y'all!! Based on the reviews ive read sounds like a great movie!!!! Y'all don't let me down ok!!!!;))))

  • Brent Chastain | January 4, 2012 6:02 PMReply

    The film is actually just what you would expect from the premise, and well done. Almost everything is handled fine, because in this type of predicatable storytelling arena, it could have been overly sappy and boring, or simply bad. Instead, it holds your interest well enough, presents good acting (nothing outstanding) and offers some compelling and believable emotional moments. The most obvious missed opportunity would have been a lot more humor - with all these amazing animals and their unique characterists, that could have been a set up for some really humorous moments that would have countered the sadder aspects of the story - it's definitly more likely to provoke a tear versus a laugh. Having followed Maltin's Film Guide for years, I am nerly certain this film will be rated 3 stars out of 4 in the next edition.
    BrentChastain, Top3Films.com

  • FuzzyDog58 | January 3, 2012 12:20 AMReply

    I saw this movie and it touched my heart. I recommend you all watch it

  • Ralph Cottingham | January 2, 2012 5:41 PMReply

    I took my grandchildren to see this movie and would do so again. It is a good movie with believable situations. It is well acted and parts of it related to life situations we have all faced. Benjamin loved the tiger and the tiger died. Haven't we all lost a pet sometime. As for the language,unfortunately our children here worse than that at the mall. Boo on you critics who think every movie has to be "GONE WITH THE WIND". We all know the reason that you are critics is because you weren't good enough to be ACTORS.

  • Fuzzydog58 | January 3, 2012 12:23 AM

    We have all lost a pet sometime

  • Angela B. | January 2, 2012 4:29 PMReply

    First there were probably less then 8 bad words in the entire film-far less than I have even heard on regular t.v. Second this film was probably the best I have seen in a LOOOOOONG time. Matt Damon was totally believable as the widower who didn't have a clue but was trying, and the children were also believable in their reactions to where their lives were going. Especially the son's reactions. The little girl, Rosie, was cute beyond belief but again in the scene where Damon asks why she didn't go on her play-date and she says "there was to much to do" showed that she was stepping into the role of mommy, I have seen this with so many of the children that have lost a parent. I have been a grief counselor for over 20 years and I thought the families actions and reactions were real. I thought the whole movie was fabulous. I saw it twice this last weekend. It made you feel good. I have talked this movie up to everyone I know and then some. I love movies about the human spirit and what it is capable of doing. I loved the interactions between the characters, especially between Matt Damon and Thomas Hayden Church. A movie about decent people doing what they need to do. This movie made you laugh, cry, cheer, think and feel. That is what a movie is supposed to do. As opposed to the trailer for The Three Stooges which made me cringe.

  • samuel | December 30, 2011 12:05 PMReply

    I agree...language was surprising...

  • kathy | December 30, 2011 12:04 PMReply

    was surprised by the amount of language in this fil. Cute movie but should be pg-13 because of language.

  • Brett | December 30, 2011 1:12 AMReply

    This was a good film. Without question.

  • stellar | December 26, 2011 4:27 PMReply

    @djwilliams...piss off

  • DJ Williams | December 25, 2011 4:07 PMReply

    Oh Please. Couldn't disagree with you more.

    This is the movie our family chose for our traditionally movie outing on Christmas weekend, because it looked like great entertainment to put a smile on everyone's face. We thought we were going to see a fun, light-hearted, feel-good movie, with animal hijinks and tribulations thrown in for good measure. Instead, it was a tear-jerker practically from beginning to end. They didn't even show the cute scene in the previews, where the monkey jumps around on the table with Matt Damon's character.

    It was all about the gut-wrenching grief and conflict between "Benjamin" and his son, after the death of the mother. Instead of funny interactions with zoo animals and humorous situations, the audience was subjected to two hours of family angst and psycho-analysis. If that is what we wanted, we would have gone to see "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo".

    There literally was not a dry eye in the house and not in a good way. More like in a, "OMG, I paid a fortune for this?"...way.

    We are all for a little sadness in a good story line, but this one went right up to the edge and fell over the cliff. It seemed like Cameron Crowe wanted to connect everything in some way to the bitterness of love lost, even using an ailing tiger to do it.

    Literally nothing hit the right tone. Hayden Thomas Church seemed miscast as Matt Damon's brother, though he did bring a few laughs to the show. This movie was just a morose hodge-podge of emotion,with a profoundly unsatisfying ending. Such a shame, because there was so much potential.

    Unfortunately, it couldn't even be saved by the adorable little girl. The only reason we would give it 2 stars is due to the solid performances by the actors.

  • Kevin | December 23, 2011 8:39 PMReply

    I have read many reviews on this movie. First, let me say I base my movie going dollars usually on movies that get bad reviews because the "critics" base their surmising on artistic analysis and how the movie relates to real life. They are concerned with the quality of acting and star power and very few times are they concerned with a "good story line". So, when I read a review that said the movie was overly "sappy" and "family-oriented" I knew the movie would be good. It didn't disappoint. It is a quality family movie with some sadness but a majority of it is
    "happy" sadness. Mr. Maltin hits it on the head when he says it is about "decent people". Hollywood very rarely does movies anymore about decent people. This one is. Yes, Cameron clearly goes for the cutsie card with Rosie. She is adorable. Scarlett Johansson does an excellent job playing the zookeeper. Thomas Hayden Church is good in just about anything he has ever done and he continues his quality performance as the caring older brother. Angus McFayden of Braveheart fame is just the right type of funny for his role. Damon is at his best as the role of the grieving father who wants to provide for his kids in a way that will change their lives. Maybe his best movie since "how do you like them apples". Crowe's movies are usually pretty good, barring that one about his life...that was terrible. Maguire was good, Say Anything was tolerable. This is by far his best. The only negative is Ford's portrayal of a disenchanted son. He does a good job. I would have just liked to see him get slapped throughout the movie. He deserved it. It is good to see quality movies for families still exist. It doesn't have to be over the top "schmaltsy" like many critics say. After all, the mere existence of "Critics" are an unfortunate irony in our society.

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