This production was originally slated for Ben Stiller – and you’ll soon see why – but it’s a good thing for viewers that Matt Damon had to take his place.
Damon stars as Benjamin Mee, a single dad struggling to raise his son and daughter. Benjamin decides to pull up stakes and move to the country to provide his family with ‘an authentic American experience’. But his new home turns out to be the front of a dilapidated zoo. Does Benjamin have what it takes to re-open this attraction, and renovate his family life in the process? Based on a true story that took place in the UK, this Californian reimagining is part comedy, part family journey and all heart.
We Bought A Zoo will remind viewers a lot of Life As A House, where Kevin Kline repaired a relationship with his son over the course of a building project. It’s well directed by Cameron Crowe who helmed other thoughtful pieces like Almost Famous and Jerry Maguire. I’m glad Matt Damon got involved over Ben Stiller. There are plenty of comic moments but much more heart than you’d expect.
In essence We Bought A Zoo is a ‘life lesson’ film about a family coming to terms with the end of one life and the beginning of another. The ghost of Benjamin’s lost wife, and his children’s absent mother, sits at the back of every scene. Fairly typically, Benjamin talks to his kids about how “…she can see all of this,” and encourages them to “Catch her spirit and put it in your heart.” But the truth is he doesn’t believe the clichés. Death is a real tragedy and as much as we would like to pretend that our loved ones never really leave, their loss is too painful to deny. If they are in fact present in any real sense, it is as an aching hole. Benjamin tells a friend,
“If only I could talk to her about getting over her. When you love somebody that hard, that long, that much, you can never really get away from them.”
The answer for the Mee family in the end is not to pretend but to move on. However this takes real courage for every member, and the renovation of a zoo is only the backdrop for the renovation of their lives. The risk Benjamin takes in making the decision that changes the direction of his life is very close to that first step a Christian takes in trusting God. And certainly the encouragement he gives his son is exactly the same as a Christian would give someone balancing on the edge of belief:
“Sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage, twenty seconds of embarrassing bravery, and I promise you something great will come of it.”
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