I was looking up showtimes to see either Hugo or The Muppets when I spotted the title We Bought a Zoo, which I had never heard of. I looked up who was in it and what it was about, and so it was that I arrived at the cinema with the firm intention of seeing this movie. Cut to the end: I walked out of the theater smiling, but with a bit of red under my eyes from wiping tears away.
The story, loosely based on something that really happened, concerns an "adventure journalist" named Benjamin Mee who realizes, six months after his wife's cancer death, that he needs to change some things in his life for his kids' sake. For one thing, his son is having a lot of anger issues, drawing disturbing pictures and getting expelled from school. For another, his little girl is trying too hard to mother her father and brother when she just needs to be a little girl. So he starts looking for a new house, where they can try new schools, a new lifestyle, and move on without the ghost of Mom hanging around. Other than a couple of documentaries, We Bought a Zoo is the first film directed by Cameron Crowe since 2005's Elizabethtown; the director of Say Anything, Jerry Maguire, and Vanilla Sky chose a surprisingly intimate and human story to add to his just-as-surprisingly short list of films.
At the end of a long and fruitless tour of properties for sale, the father and daughter find their dream house. It comes with a catch, though: whoever buys it must also buy the Exotic Animal Park that comes with it. And maintain the staff that takes care of the animals. The Mee family, lacking any experience in zookeeping, plunges into the task. They are immediately in over their head, realizing that lions, tigers, and bears (oh my) will not solve their personal problems, and that they will need a miracle to finance the improvements the state inspector requires before they can open for business.
The Mees go through some rough patches, make no mistake. They have to deal with teenage rebellion and a rocky teen romance; a hero tiger reaching the end of his life; a runaway bear; a crate of snakes (fresh off a plane, no doubt) left open overnight; a bookkeeper who campaigns to turn the staff against the new owners; and the still raw memory of a woman who will be hard to let go of. The turning point, and for my money the best scene in the movie, is when the boy and his father finally have it out in a very loud argument, culminating in the little girl asking, "What was that about the Easter Bunny?"
The show features Matt Damon in the lead role, supported by Colin Ford (lately the "young Sam Winchester" on TV's Supernatural), Elle Fanning (late of Super 8, Scarlett Johansson (lately "Black Widow" in the Marvel Comics films), Thomas Haden Church (of Sideways and Spiderman 3) as the grieving dad's older brother, John Michael Higgins (of A Mighty Wind, Best in Show, etc.) as the buttoned-up inspector, and Angus Macfadyen (of The Cradle Will Rock and Braveheart) as the wild guy who designs wild animal enclosures. If the guy with the monkey perched on his shoulder looks familiar to you, he's Patrick Fugit, whom I last saw playing "Evra the Snake Boy" in Cirque du Freak. If he's not familiar to you, then he isn't.