Following the death of his wife, journalist Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) understandably found himself in a rut. Work was no longer fulfilling (not helped by his boss and co-workers' constant sympathy) and his relationship with his children, particularly his teen son, had become strained. What the Mee family needed was a change. What they did was buy a zoo.
The premise for We Bought A Zoo sounds an awful lot like a high concept, family-oriented television series with cute kids and even cuter animals. But what it is, under the solid direction of Cameron Crowe (best known for Jerry Maguire (1996) and 2000's Almost Famous), and a screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna, is a family-friendly, and highly engaging film - with cute kids and even cuter animals.
What Zoo has going for it, however, is the reliable star presence of Matt Damon, convincingly playing a work-a-day dad with every day problems and coping with grief, and a story based on fact: the real Benjamin Mee did indeed buy a small time zoo following the death of his wife.
That zoo, along with the Mee family, just happened to be English, but that geographical discrepancy has had little impact on We Bought A Zoo (adapted from Mee's own 2008 book), with the story losing none of its joy or heart in its transportation across the Atlantic to southern California.
Though it's doubtful that English zoo had a caretaker resembling Scarlett Johansson's Kelly Foster; no doubt an underlying reason why Benjamin persists with his mission of bringing the one-time operational zoo back up to code and in time for a summer re-opening.
That's in spite of the stress it places on both his finances (Thomas Haden Church providing an excellent comic foil as Benjamin's concerned older brother, Duncan), and his family. Eldest child, Dylan (Colin Field), hasn't been coping at all with the death of his mother. Expelled from school and constantly at loggerheads with his dad, it will take more than a backyard full of exotic wildlife, including Kelly's niece, Lily (Elle Fanning, playing daffy), to win him over.
Of course he eventually is, and you will be too. For it will take a hard heart to resist the charms of this inoffensive, almost too-sweet but never cloying family film.
Cameron Crowe, aided by a light score composed by Jonsi (of Sigur Ros fame), as well as some classic pop-rock tunes (as is the director's want), keeps the mood just right and the saccharine (for the most part) at bay. (The youngest Mee, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), will certainly test your cuteness tolerance: her latter appearance in a Bindi Irwin-esque uniform had me wishing I could dish out some corporal punishment.)
Matt Damon is also key to the film's success; very few Hollywood leading men could successfully pull-off the single dad-common man bit so convincingly. Even when the kids and the animals threaten to become too much, Damon remains our focus and ensures we buy into We Bought A Zoo.