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We Bought a Zoo is an excellent family film, which is different than a children's movie. Unlike frenetic movies focused on the next laugh, this tender film does not aim at children and hope to bring adults along. Rather, it offers something for each member of the family, blending a sad but ultimately hopeful storyline and some cute animals.
The unalterable fact of his wife's death has not stopped Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) from loving her. Likewise, 7-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and teen Dylan (Colin Ford) need her as much as ever. When Dylan starts acting up in school, Benjamin answers with drastic change, selling their home. Finding the perfect replacement house is easy. The fact that it comes with a small zoo and an eccentric staff challenges a bit more. Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) heads up the animal care team, preparing for an inspection that will determine whether the zoo stays open. Her homeschooled niece Lily (Elle Fanning) hopes to find a friend in Dylan.
While there are funny moments, this is not the sort of film that features talking animals or jokes about droppings. Just as the animals add richness to the Mees' life, they add richness to the film, but the focus is on human hearts. All the acting is top notch, but Damon does an especially good job portraying a good man in overwhelming circumstances. Johansson leaves behind her ingenue glamor to portray an earthy and earnest animal lover. Rated PG for occasional language and thematic elements, particularly death and adolescent rebellion, the film will be appropriate for all but the most sensitive children.
The quality and sensitivity of this film, plus its tender heart, make it one of the best recent movies. The zoo is much more than just a zoo. It is revitalization of a wounded family unit.