‘We Bought a Zoo’ (2011): A Family Story with Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My! Matt Damon stars in this heartwarming story. © Rissi JC

‘We Bought a Zoo’ (2011): A Family Story with Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

April 11, 2012 Rissi JC 17 Comments

Stories that have plots “inspired by true events” can go one of two ways. The first is either more of docu-drama that is far too technical and biographical to be really entertaining, and the second option is an uplifting story that inspires its viewer. We Bought a Zoo is the latter.

We Bought a Zoo (2011) Film Review

He’s been on a plane that went straight into the heart of a hurricane, interviewed world leaders in war-torn countries but nothing prepares Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) for the loss of his beloved wife and the responsibility of raising his two children without her at his side. A year ago the family of four was a happy, typical American family; six months ago they said good-bye to a wife and mother. Now, Benjamin is tired of sympathy. He cannot stomach the pitying attention he and his children get.

His brother, Duncan (Thomas Hayden Church) encourages Benjamin to get out more and “interact” with people but when his fourteen-year-old son (Colin Ford) is expelled from school, Benjamin sees this as the call to change. With a fresh start in mind, he and his precocious seven-year-old daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) begin looking at new properties until he finds one that is exactly what his family needs – only problem is, the backyard is quite literally a zoo!

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Though painfully underrated, this is a really sweet film. There’s a lot to admire regardless of a premise that seems uninteresting when compared to some of the blockbusters that clamor for “first place” at the box office. One of the way this script most impresses is the humor. Not only is it pretty funny (more on that later) but this is sure to tug on our heartstrings in a way that still makes us smile. The direction is equally dynamic. There’s multiple scenes where the set-up is fabulous; the simplicity in them is not too sappy but yet has a beautiful familiarity. They’re the best kind of scenes that remind of realistic life. It’s this quality that so endears the film, and connects with its audience.

What helps to convey this is the acting. Damon is a first-rate versatile actor, and he does not disappoint in this role. Seeing him play a father is one of the best roles he’s had to date; and the way he relates to his on-screen children is precious. Then there are the child actors; Colin does an admirable job but it’s young Maggie who steals every single frame she is in. She’s like a miniature adult who’s still an innocent in the best sense of the word. Scarlett Johannson is also another familiar name in this film. It’s nice to see her in a role more “cute” than fierce, and her chemistry with Damon is memorable albeit one more of tender emotion than “sparks” of romance. (It was also a pleasant surprise to see one of the rotating “squints” from Bones in a supporting role.)

We Bought a Zoo is the surprise movie of the year at my house. My whole family found it precious, plus something to make us laugh. How everything comes together at the end may be a bit of a cliché but for the most part, the movie does not fall into those sorts of traps. Instead it’s a pleasant family drama with an ending that doesn’t stop where you think it will. Some may find fault with how it does end because it is more of a what-will-be, than has-been but I take it all in stride and accept it as a promise of a brighter future for a family. I definitely recommend this one. It’s not at all what you might think, but is a five-star keeper.

(Disclosure: this post does contain affiliate links; if you buy anything through these links, I may receive a small percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you. Thank you to anyone who makes a purchase through these links. Read the disclosure page for details.)

You can find We Bought a Zoo digitally on Amazon Video

Content: there’s some mild language [h*ll, da*n, there is a use of Jesus Christ] and crude comments [a man is called a d**k]. There is one or two mild sexual innuendos; Duncan encourages his brother to have a fling with a woman, a man ogles Kelly [another person tells her the man “lusts” her to which she informs she won’t take one “for the team”], and there is a nude photo of a pregnant woman [arms strategically placed]. One scene has a bunch of snakes littered across the lawn. Adult characters drink in the evenings but are never depicted as “drunk.” The film is PG.

About Rissi JC

amateur graphic designer. confirmed bookaholic. bubbl’r enthusiast. critical thinker. miswesterner. social media coordinator. writer.

Rissi JC

amateur graphic designer. confirmed bookaholic. bubbl’r enthusiast. critical thinker. miswesterner. social media coordinator. writer.

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  • Ruth April 11, 2012 at 1:38 PM

    I need to rent this one — it does sound cute. :)

  • Rachel Hipps April 11, 2012 at 1:39 PM

    This movie looks pretty fun and funny, but after watching Contagious with Matt Damon, I can't stand him with long hair! It just really kinda annoys me. I prefer him with the Jason Bourne super awesome cool dude buzz cut. :D

  • Ella April 11, 2012 at 4:59 PM

    It WAS a cute one, wasn't it!? I am so glad that you liked it. It was one of my favorites of 2011.

    I think Matt Damon did so well with those kids because he has four of his own =P Scarlett Johannson bugs me, but I didn't hate her in this–and you are right, their moments together were more tender than passionate.

    As to that squitern, she just so happens to be my LEAST favorite, so when I saw her in this film….I groaned. Audibly. In the theatre. That's how much she bugs me =)

  • Rissi April 11, 2012 at 6:18 PM

    Ruth – it is! I really enjoyed this one, and will probably even buy it or ask for it on my b'day – it was sweet. =)


    Rachel – oh, really!? I didn't mind his haircut… but then, watching that movie with Damon may have turned me off of him as an actor: period! Aside from its impressive cast, it looked too depressing. =) Funny thing is, Ben Stiller was also considered for this role but I don't think I'd have liked it half as well had he been cast!

    Yeah, well… it is almost impossible to beat Matt as Bourne, right!?. ;-)

    Ella – yes, it was! Definitely one of my faves from 2011, too! I loved this flick. It was sweet, touching and had such a ring of "truth" (in the father-child scenes) that is isn't easily forgotten.

    Having four kids likely did play a huge role in Damon being so charismatic. I don't mind Johannson as an actress but my mom doesn't like her either. Aw! You don't like Daisy!? I think she is TOO cute. ;)

  • Alycia (Crowley Party) April 11, 2012 at 9:03 PM

    I thought it was a fun loving film :)

  • Rissi April 12, 2012 at 2:19 AM

    It was, wasn't it, Alycia! I really (really!) enjoyed this one. So cute.

    Thanks bunches for the follow – stop in often! =)

  • jennifer blair April 13, 2012 at 5:21 PM

    I loved your review! This one has been on my list to watch for a while now! I'm excited to see it!

  • Rissi April 13, 2012 at 8:48 PM

    Thanks, Jennifer! I love movies like this that are so good because they then make it super easy to write about. That was the case with this movie.

    I hope you enjoy this one – it is super sweet. =)

    Glad you stopped in, Jennifer.

  • Anonymous April 14, 2012 at 7:08 PM

    This one looks good. Can't wait to watch it. =D

  • Rissi April 16, 2012 at 4:20 PM

    It is, Jen! I would already like seeing it again. =) Enjoy!

  • Sierra April 16, 2012 at 9:12 PM

    I had a friend who went to see it, and she said it was good. That plus your review has me wanting to see it :) Sierra
    Keep Growing Beautiful♥ (Because You Are!)
    Philippians 4:8

  • Rissi April 16, 2012 at 10:36 PM

    I highly recommend this one, Sierra. There are a few flaws in the script but overall, this is a "clean" movie with a good "heart."

    Hope you enjoy if / when you see it. =)

  • JR April 17, 2012 at 2:01 AM

    Yay, I'm glad you found this one! I just watched it, too, and found I really enjoyed it. In fact, I share many of your thoughts on it.

  • Rissi April 17, 2012 at 3:11 AM

    I know, right, JR!? I am loving having this great discussion about this particular film because it was really good and sweet and just… overall charming! So happy you enjoyed it, too!

  • Italia May 11, 2012 at 10:22 AM

    When I saw previews for this movie, my first thoughts were that it would probably be cute but I was in no hurry to see it. That is until Corey and I had our movie weekend and I put it in just to get another one checked off my list.

    I was really surprised. It was definitely cute like I first thought it would be but I think I can now say that it was probably my favorite movie out of all the ones we watched this weekend.
    Based on a memoir by Benjamin Mee, it tells the story of Mee and his family who just moved into a dilapidated zoo. They take on the challenge of repairing the zoo before it's reopening to the public.

    Matt Damon (as Benjamin Mee) was awesome as usual, and Scarlet Johansson (as Kelly Foster) played a very good supporting role in the movie as well. Maggie Elizabeth Jones (as Rosie Mee) was ADORABLE! Just about every time she showed up on screen, I would say, "She is so cute!" She reminds me of my niece. I expect her to be the next Dakota Fanning if she isn't already.

  • Rissi May 12, 2012 at 5:13 PM

    Great summary, Italia!

    You are right: This movie is more than just "cute." I loved it – Maggie was TOO ADORABLE. She really lit up the screen. =)

    This movie = a must-buy film for me.

    Thanks for stopping by – do so again soon. =)

  • […] one, We Bought a Zoo (2011), made me smile and surpassed my expectations. Here Damon plays a widowed father struggling […]

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