Based on the true story of a British man whose family purchased a dilapidated zoo and refurbished it into an acclaimed zoological park, "We Bought A Zoo" is more about the humans than the animals. Directed by Cameron Crowe and joined in writing the adapted screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna (27 Dresses, The Devil Wears Prada), the original story is an autobiography by Benjamin Mee. In moving the setting from England to California, the characters and their relationships are artistically shifted. Though the story is predictable, it is nevertheless an inspiring and moving tale.
In this version of the tale, Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) has become a single father due to the untimely passing of his wife Katherine (Stephanie Szostak). His young daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) has responded by taking on her mom's responsibility to fix lunches while his son Dylan (Colin Ford) has buried his grief and is acting out both in school and in his grotesque drawings. This troubled family needs a new start. While looking for a home, they come across the defunct zoo.
Their unlikely purchase of not just a new home but also a complex business comes with the animals as well as a staff to care for them. The zookeeper is the beautiful Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson). Having been an assistant, she is now in charge and must teach Benjamin how to care for his zoo. Also on the staff is her young niece Lily Miska (Elle Fanning) whose innocent joy becomes as healing of an influence in Dylan's life as Kelly is in Benjamin's.
The interactive plots of reopening the zoo and restoring the family have some direct comparisons. One is the necessity for Benjamin to let go of "Spar", a terminal Bengal tiger, as he realizes that in spite of his geographic change he still has to let go of those he loves, an obvious reference to his deceased wife. Another parallel is the hatching of ostrich eggs under Rosie's watchful eye as her new life is also reborn.
The comic relief and dramatic tension comes in the form of an eccentric inspector, Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins). Given responsibility to license zoological facilities, Ferris takes special pleasure in causing the Mee family and their staff stress. This minor subplot provides an added sense of accomplishment as the story moves toward its triumphant conclusion.
Grief is a journey that requires the support of a community to traverse. This fact is what makes this revised version of the tale effective. The theme is verbally affirmed by several characters as they all agree that though the animals have brought them together as a group, it is the people and their love for each other that brings healing to their lives and unique experiences of grief. That is a message worthy of remembering and practicing in the losses that occur in all of our lives.
Discussion for those who have seen this film:
1. The unique relationship that Benjamin has with his brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church) provides another form of healing as they use their deceased father's inheritance to facilitate the restoration of the zoo. If you have received an inheritance, how did you use it to honor your ancestors or heal your grief?
2. Katherine's death disoriented all the members of the Mee family, yet they had no counsel provided to them by a pastor, therapist or friend. Where do you turn when you need help in navigating a loss?
3. The response of the community to the reopening of the zoo was overwhelming. Do you believe that such a response was realistic? Why or why not?
Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of the Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara. For more reviews: www.cinemainfocus.com.