Watching We Bought a Zoo made a pleasant change from the comic book hero and sci-fi movies I usually watch. It stars Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson and a very good cast of actors old, young and animal.
Damon’s character Benjamin is an adventure junkie journalist who is coming to terms with the death of his wife and struggling to look after his teenage son and younger daughter. He decides to quit his job and move away from all the sad memories his local area holds, and as the title suggest he ends up buying a zoo. The zoo is dillapidated and home to a variety of animals and odd humans. Johansson plays the zoo manager. At times she over-plays the role and then mellows over time – whether this is a deliberate choice by the actor following a character arc is irrelevant as it kind of worked for me. It’s Scarlett Johansson after all.
The plot is fairly predictable with a variety of hurdles to be overcome – getting the zoo open, winning over the stroppy teenage son, coming to terms with the death of a loved one, but these themes are well handled and the visual metaphors well-played. The son for instance draws dark imagery in his sketch book which wouldn’t be out-of-place in a horror comic, but by the end of the film is drawing the animals; the sketch book being a visual representation of the state of his thoughts. It helps that there is a girl around his age working at the zoo. The zoo itself is a metaphor for Benjamin’s life and the sick tiger a metaphor for his dead wife.
The film towards the end does verge on being ‘pass the bucket’ over-sentimental, but on the whole strikes the balance between realistic dialogue/feelings and the need to tell an engaging story. The film is based on a true story and I think that it helped to ground the film in some kind of reality. The interaction between zoo-keeper and Benjamin was for instance not the usual predictable man-gets-woman-in-the-end storyline – yes, they kiss, but it is left hanging as to whether that’s really the start of anything else.
The animals were great – tigers, lions, a huge bear, a cheeky monkey, otters and a freaky thing that looked like a cross between a sea otter and a small bear (really not sure what it was, but it was kind of cute). The whole ‘circle of life’ theme is played out well with Benjamin’s daughter keeping and eye on some bird’s eggs and Benjamin’s concern for the struggling tiger. All in all it was a good movie within the ‘feel good’ / ‘life changing’ genre.