I’m ecstatic, gutted and elated from this movie that played me like a banjo, plucking heart strings at will. In the last month I have been challenged as a Dad by two movies that might slip under your radar as you keep a hand on the wheel of life steering through Christmas. First there was “Courageous” from the Kendrick brothers and now the real life adaption of Benjamin Mee’s life in “We Bought a Zoo”.
This for me is the family movie of the year and you will not regret seeing it. I had the privilege of seeing the preview screening for this review and we weren’t too far into the movie when my wife said, “We have to bring the kids”. And then a little later, “We have to get this on DVD for home”.
While the movie’s key actors and accents give you a sense you’re in country America, the real story eminated from Plymouth, England where the tale of Benjamin Mee’s family buying and renovating the Dartmoor Zoo became a Guardian newspaper story in 2007. You can read the real background story here. The onscreen version of ‘Rosemoor Zoo’ reads differently to the script but with its own drama helps you understand where the motivation for the movie first began. I think Benjamin Mee’s own book will be on a few shopping lists for the New Year.
Now let’s step into the movie and Benjamin Mee’s (Matt Damon) shoes as Writer and Director, Cameron Crowe introduces you to the single dad raising the precocious 7yo Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and 14yo Dylan (Colin Ford), a simmering young man asking ‘Why?’ He has good reason. The Mother they adored has died six months earlier. Their adventurer and writer Dad has hit the writers block equivalent of stalling the engine on life and there is a month’s worth of lasagne in the fridge from the do-gooders who simply don’t get it.
Matt Damon’s character shows a good man who wants to get a fresh start away from the coffee shops of the village life that remind him of his wife. He wants to remember and forget and thats about the size of it. After looking for a new home he stumbles across a complicated purchase that sees him taking on responisbility for a 33 acre zoo with eight staff and numerous species of animals. To make a profit he has to open in time for the holiday season. But that isn’t going to happen until he learns to jump through some new hoops to meet the animal welfare inspector’s electric rule.
Scarlett Johansson steps on the scene as Kelly Foster the Zoo Keeper. Untrained but passionate she leads the remnant of staff to rally behind Mee in his bid to make deadlines, overcome escaped animals and pick up by holding the hand of a man needing direction. Its a great script that give enough of a romance edge to keep the story flowing while paying respect to a beautiful marriage and a family missing a key part of the jigsaw puzzle they once saw as a picture complete.
Being a Dad is the most rewarding role on the planet but lets not pretend being a father is easy. Its hard work with sometimes unseen results. Many times I don’t get it right and lets be honest the landscape for fatherhood has changed dramatically in the last 30 years. When I grew up there was one or two TV channels to review and filter and now we want to teach our kids about life before its delivered wrapped in a browser and called ‘online’. Some things we teach our kids through values but there are some lessons that come through experience. Losng a loved one and living a marriage are two of those examples. While Benjamin Mee has to find his own way one of the most engaging, heart wrenching scenes is when Father and Son come to grips with hurt and honesty and let it out. The clean slate is a platform for rebuilding and the story has a sense of rebirth from this point.
One of the memorable quotes comes from Damon’s character as he tells on screen son Dylan how to ‘get the girl’. Its a quote that Mee got from his brother when he was young and he passes it on saying;
“You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”
Cameron Crowe has brought us some of the great passion and intensity that I adored in Jerry Maguire. The script is superbly paced and keeps this family drama in sync with reality while threading some great sub-plots and comedy to the story.
Hollywood has faced some challenges in the last ten years. For some reason we’ve run out of stories for the next script in the sausage machine and the only way we extend a budget is by asking for 48 seconds of extra CGi time. It becomes a sad reflection that our movies are filled with reboots and prequels followed by tech wizardry with a dash of CGi befuddlement.
The real way forward is to invest in great writers. Let’s tell the stories of life and write words that define the arena of dreams. I can’t speak highly enough of ‘We Bought a Zoo’. Its the life of Benjamin Mee, Father and Zoo Owner told by master story teller, Cameron Crowe. Great writing inspires great lives. When I walked out of the theatre I quickly fired off a tweet;
@cameroncrowe thanks for an awesome movie experience. Life is full of joy and pain. 20 seconds of insane courage is required. #WeBoughtaZoo
Some movies inspire a moment I hope ‘We Bought a Zoo’ will inspire a life.
4 out of 5 popcorns