In 2006, Benjamin Mee and his family moved into Dartmoor Wildlife Park - a dilapidated zoo in Devon - and the inspirational story of triumph over adversity (hello big cat escapes, financial worries and family tragedies) which followed had "Hollywood blockbuster" written all over it.
We Bought A Zoo - Cameron Crowe's reworking of the real life story changes some of the basics - most obviously that the zoo is relocated to Southern California, and that the purchase is prompted by the death of Mee's wife (in reality, Katherine had already taken on management roles at the zoo before her deadly brain tumour returned) - but remains faithful to the upbeat spirit of the original adventure.
Matt Damon ably plays the part of Mee, a newly-single parent struggling with the demands of raising two children alone. He is aided onscreen by his two children Dylan (Colin Ford) - a believably angry teen who feels alienated by the relocation - and Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) who manages to stay the right side of adorable and adds a note of charming levity to what could otherwise have been a darker portrait of a family in total crisis.
On the other side of the zookeeping expertise fence - i.e. she actually possesses some - is Scarlett Johansson's Kelly - fiercely protective over the animals in her care and rather sans social life as a result of the zoo's demands. As the film progresses, Kelly's zookeeping skills and her ability to to give Benjamin a much-needed reality check prove as invaluable to the Mee family as the much-needed injection of fresh company is to her own life.
As a family film, and one dealing with a grieving central character, Kelly's role as a romantic interest in downplayed in favour of her other skills but romance abounds elsewhere, both in Benjamin's wide-eyed embrace of the wild animal challenges and in the endearingly hesitant relationship between Kelly's teenage cousin (played by Elle Fanning) and Dylan - by turns oblivious, uncertain and courageous. In fact, the advice Mee gives to his son: "You only need 20 seconds of courage," will likely be found echoing in your head long after the movie credits have rolled.
Ultimately, We Bought A Zoo is a movie which wears its heart on its sleeve thanks to Crowe's trademark cynicism-free style and which will elicit a covert tear or two from all but the most hard hearted viewer.
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