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Review: True 'Zoo' has big heart

By Michelle Solomon, Contributing writer
Published On: Dec 23 2011 11:22:30 AM CST
Updated On: Jan 27 2012 04:07:10 PM CST
We Bought a Zoo blurb image

20th Century Fox

The amazing true story of journalist Benjamin Mee gets the big-screen treatment with Matt Damon as the guy whose life is changed when he buys a broken down zoo, rescuing animals and his family during the process.

After seeing the feel-good "We Bought A Zoo" you'll want to pack up the car and take a family road trip to California to visit the inspirational Rosemoor Animal Park. But you'll have to buy a plane ticket to find the real deal; filmmaker Cameron Crowe has taken some liberties since Mee's park is actually in the English countryside.

It makes no difference, because the story is universal across the pond or around the corner.

In 2006, Benjamin Mee, a British newspaper columnist, moved his family from their peaceful existence in the south of France to the shuttered Dartmoor Zoo in Devon. Benjamin's family consisted of his wife Katherine, his mother, his brother Duncan, and his two small children, Ella and Milo. A few months after he bought the zoo, his wife died at the age of 40.

For the movie version, Damon's Mee is a Los Angeles columnist who quits his newspaper job before they can lay him off. He's already a widower, struggling with two children, his 13-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford), who draws macabre pictures and incessantly broods, and his precocious 7-year-old daughter Rosie (scene stealer Maggie Elizabeth Jones), who loves everything about her daddy, especially the fact that he's not bald.

Ready for a life change, he decides to buy a different house than the one that holds so many memories of his wife, and ends up miles outside of L.A. on an 18-acre property and home to a zoo. Of course, it goes without saying that it's not all paradise. Soon after moving in, he learns that the place is a money pit, he has to manage a staff of a quirky zoo workers, a pesky inspector (John Michael Higgins) is waiting in the wings to close the place down, and that Dylan hasn't given up his passion for severed head portraits despite being pursued by the zookeeper's perky niece Lily (Elle Fanning).

But there is the down-to-earth, no-nonsense zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), plus comic relief from the zoo's visionary architect (Scottish actor Angus MacFadyen) with a target on the inspector's head. There's also Benjamin's so-called voice of reason, his brother Duncan (the always comically effective Thomas Haden Church).

Filmmaker Crowe has a real love for the film, and it shows through in just about every shot. He finds a way to bring Johansson and Damon together; the two actors are so low key it could've been a deadly pairing, but it works here, plus the script keeps Ben and Kelly on task rather than turning their flirtation up to full throttle. Their affection remains under the surface enough to make things interesting.

It's hard to knock a movie that has lions, tigers, bears and cute kids, plus a heart warming story that's a great pick me up any time of year, but especially during the over commercialized holiday season.

"We Bought A Zoo" can be sentimental and sappy, but it's easily forgivable because it has such a big heart. So, will buying a broken down zoo fix every family's problems? Probably not, but a family outing to see "We Bought a Zoo" is sure worth the trip.

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