We Bought a Zoo is a 2011 American family comedy-drama film loosely based on the 2008 memoir of the same name by Benjamin Mee. It was written and directed by Cameron Crowe and stars Matt Damon as Benjamin Mee, who purchases a dilapidated zoo with his family and takes on the challenge of preparing the zoo for its reopening to the public. The film also stars Scarlett Johansson, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Thomas Haden Church, Patrick Fugit, Elle Fanning, Colin Ford, and John Michael Higgins. The film was released in the United States on December 23, 2011. The film has received mixed reviews from critics, and it earned $120.1 million on a $50 million budget. We Bought a Zoo was released on DVD and Blu-ray on April 3, 2012.
Recently widowed Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), still grieving his loss and dealing with the expulsion of his 14-year-old son, Dylan (Colin Ford), from school, decides to make a fresh start by buying a new house. He tours many houses with his 7-year-old daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), and his realtor, Mr. Stevens (J.B. Smoove), but finds none he likes until his daughter finds a listing with what seems like the perfect house. They drive to an old large house and Benjamin inspects the property, telling his realtor it is perfect. When they hear a lion roar, Stevens explains that the house comes with a zoo in the back, which closed several years before; if they want the house, they must buy the zoo.
Although reluctant at first, Mee decides to buy the zoo when he sees Rosie happily playing with the peacocks. Dylan, however, hates the idea of moving away from his friends and retreats into his artwork which has grown more macabre since the death of his mother. Benjamin's brother, Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), tries to dissuade him from the purchase, but Benjamin buys it anyway. The zoo staff, led by the 28-year-old head keeper, Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), help to start renovating the zoo with the intent to reopen it to the public. When Kelly confronts Benjamin about why he bought a zoo, knowing nothing about running one, Benjamin simply responds "Why not?". Dylan befriends Kelly's 13-year-old homeschooled cousin, Lily Miska (Elle Fanning), who develops a romantic interest that Dylan is oblivious to.
A strict USDA inspector, Walt Ferris (John Michael Higgins), arrives for a surprise inspection and makes a list of repairs that would cost around $100,000, which Benjamin does not have. Rhonda Blair (Carla Gallo), the zoo's accountant, gossips that Benjamin will probably sell the zoo. The workers' morale sinks, fearing the property will be sold to a buyer that will close it down.
When Lily tells Dylan that she heard his family might be leaving, he is overjoyed, which hurts her feelings. Benjamin discovers that his wife bequeathed him an investment account, with instructions to use the money wisely while listening to his heart. Duncan advises him to walk away and start over with the money, but Benjamin decides to use the money to repair the zoo. While this lifts the zoo workers' morale, Dylan is unhappy about having to stay; he confronts his father, and a heated argument ensues. They reconcile the next morning and Dylan admits he misses Lily. Benjamin gives his son advice using his favorite principle, that you only need 20 seconds of courage to achieve great things. Benjamin realizes that instead of trying to start over by forgetting his wife, he should accept that she will always be a part of him.
Prior to the grand opening of the zoo, the facility passes a very stringent inspection from Ferris, who grudgingly wishes them good luck. Dylan, following his father's advice, confesses to Lily that he loves her and she forgives him. The week prior to the opening, the worst rainstorm in 100 years is predicted to wash it out. The weather clears in time, but in the morning they are disappointed when no visitors arrive. They discover that a fallen tree has blocked the access road, with a large crowd of waiting visitors behind it. The staff help them to climb over the tree. There are so many people that they run out of tickets, forcing Benjamin and Kelly to look for more. They end up face to face in a shed, where Kelly admits to Benjamin that she is romantically interested in him and since she "can't get a handle on it", she kisses him, telling him that maybe they can do it again on New Year's Eve; Benjamin kisses her back, and tells her that he is looking forward to it.
Benjamin takes his children to the restaurant where he met their mother, explaining that it was the point where their existence became a possibility. He takes them through that day's encounter, where Benjamin worked up the nerve to talk to his future wife with "20 seconds of insane courage", and walks up to the table she was at. He visualizes her (Stephanie Szostak) sitting there, and asks her why such an amazing woman would talk to someone like him. She responds, "Why not?"
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- Matt Damon as Benjamin Mee, the father of Dylan and Rosie Mee and the owner of the zoo, who is trying to restart his life after his wife dies.
- Scarlett Johansson as Kelly Foster, the 28-year-old lead zookeeper and long-time employee at Rosemoor Animal Park.
- Thomas Haden Church as Duncan Mee, Ben's older brother and an accountant.
- Colin Ford as Dylan Mee, Ben's 14-year-old son, who is initially drawn to Lily and eventually develops feelings for her and has a rough relationship with his father.
- Maggie Elizabeth Jones as Rosie Mee, Ben's 7-year-old daughter, who is very curious about all of the animals in the zoo and thinks living at a zoo is a grand adventure.
- Angus Macfadyen as Peter MacCreedy, the carpenter of the zoo who had made many innovative enclosures for the zoo, and he claims that his ideas were "stolen" by Walter Ferris. Because of this, he has a huge and violent grudge against Walter.
- Elle Fanning as Lily Miska, the 13-year old home-schooled cousin of Kelly and worker at the zoo's restaurant who lives within the zoo. Although she is too young to legally work, she is paid "under the table" out of her cousin's salary. She likes Dylan (who is at first unaware of this fact), but later gives up on her pursuit of a relationship with him after Dylan doesn't listen to her and unintentionally hurts her feelings. After he subsequently apologizes and tells her of his own feelings for her, she forgives him and they resume their friendship and start their relationship.
- Patrick Fugit as Robin Jones; the zoo's craftsman and Crystal the monkey's owner.
- John Michael Higgins as Walter "Walt" Ferris, a strict zoo inspector who earns the dislike of many people.
- Carla Gallo as Rhonda Blair, the secretary and bookkeeper of the zoo.
- J.B. Smoove as Mr. Stevens, the Mee family's real estate agent.
- Stephanie Szostak as Katherine Mee, the deceased wife of Benjamin Mee.
- Desi Lydic as Shea Seger, a woman with an obvious crush on Benjamin who always brings him lasagna.
- Peter Riegert as Delbert McGinty, Benjamin's boss before he 'starts over'.
- Michael Panes as the principal of Dylan and Rosie's school.
- Kym Whitley as Eve the Home Depot Clerk.
- Crystal the Monkey as Crystal, the monkey.
- Bart / Tank the Bear as Buster, the grizzly bear.
In May 2010, Cameron Crowe agreed to direct the 20th Century Fox adaptation of Benjamin Mee's memoir We Bought a Zoo. He then began rewriting the film's script, which was originally written by Aline Brosh McKenna. This was the first film that was directed by Crowe since the 2005 film Elizabethtown. The film was released on December 23, 2011.
Crowe traveled to the set of the film True Grit to persuade actor Matt Damon to take on the role of the lead character in the film. Crowe also presented a script of the film, a CD of songs that Crowe composed himself, and a copy of the 1983 film Local Hero, with instructions "to not just read the script and make a decision". Damon was persuaded to play the role after he was moved by Crowe's music and found that Local Hero was a "masterpiece". As for Crowe himself, he had already decided on Damon halfway through their meeting, though the distributor Fox still had a shortlist of candidates to play this role.
In August 2011, it was announced that Icelandic musician Jón Þór "Jónsi" Birgisson, the lead singer of the band Sigur Rós, would be composing the music scores for We Bought a Zoo. Director Crowe described the choice as "only natural", since "Jónsi has been a part of the making of We Bought A Zoo from the very beginning".
The song Gathering Stories was on the shortlist of 39 songs that have a chance of being nominated for Best Original Song Oscar at the 84th Academy Awards. This song was co-written by Jonsi Birgisson and Cameron Crowe.
While the official CD release of the movie soundtrack only includes music by Jón Þór "Jónsi" Birgisson and Sigur Rós, the complete soundtrack of the film included a variety of artists.
Tracks not on soundtrack
- "Don't Come Around Here No More" - Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
- "Do It Clean" - Echo & the Bunnymen
- "Airline to Heaven" - Wilco
- "Don't Be Shy" - Cat Stevens
- "Living with the Law" - Chris Whitley
- "Last Medicine Dance" - Mike McCready
- "Buckets of Rain" - Bob Dylan
- "I'm Open" - Eddie Vedder
- "No Soy Del Valle" - Quantic Presenta Flowering Inferno
- "Like I Told You" - Acetone
- "Ashley Collective" - Mike McCready
- "For a Few Dollars More" - The Upsetters
- "Hunger Strike" - Temple Of The Dog
- "Mariachi El Bronx" - Mariachi El Bronx
- "Haleakala Sunset" - CKsquared
- "Cinnamon Girl" (Live) - Neil Young
- "Holocene" - Bon Iver
- "Throwing Arrows" - Mike McCready
- "Work to Do" - The Isley Brothers
- "All Your Love (I Miss Loving)" - Otis Rush
- "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" - Randy Newman
We Bought a Zoo grossed a total of $2,984,875 on its opening day in the U.S. box office, making it the sixth highest grossing film that weekend. It subsequently earned $14,604,645 in its first four days of screening. Overall, the film grossed $75,624,550 in North America and $37,764,426 internationally for a worldwide total of $113,388,976. It is one of only twelve feature films to be released in over 3,000 theaters and still improve on its box office performance in its second weekend, increasing 41.4% from $9,360,434 to $13,238,241.
The film has received mixed reviews from critics. The film received a rating of 66% on Rotten Tomatoes. Of the 153 reviewers surveyed, 101 of them certified the film as "fresh" while 52 of them certified it as "rotten". Metacritic gave the film a rating of 58/100, with 40 reviews sampled.
Roger Ebert, reviewing for the Chicago Sun-Times, awarded the film 2.5 stars out of 4, describing the film as "too much formula and not enough human interest." He added that the film's "pieces go together too easily, the plot is too inevitable, and we feel little real energy between the players." However, he did praise Damon, whom he says "makes a sturdy and likable Benjamin Mee". The New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargis criticized Crowe's direction, writing that it "makes the escalating tension between Benjamin and Dylan the story's soft center," while keeping "the brutality of illness and death" "safely off-screen". She also noted that the film uses "classic movie logic", specifically pointing out the way that Benjamin quits his job and that he "doesn't agonize about how he'll keep his children housed, fed and clothed". On the other hand, Dargis wrote that "you may not buy his [Cameron's] happy endings, but it's a seductive ideal when all of God's creatures, great and small, buxom and blond, exist in such harmony."
The Hollywood Reporter commented that the "uplifting tale [the film] has heart, humanity and a warmly empathetic central performance from Matt Damon", although it "doesn't dodge the potholes of earnest sentimentality and at times overplays the whimsy". The reviewer also praised the cast, describing them as "solid", and in particular praised Damon's character, whose struggle he says "gives the movie a soulful pull, even at its most predictable". Overall, this reviewer summarized his review by saying that "Cameron Crowe's film has some rough edges, but it ultimately delivers thanks to Matt Damon's moving performance."
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment released We Bought a Zoo on DVD and Blu-ray on April 3, 2012.
The real zoo
The movie's plot and actual events differ. The real Benjamin Mee is British. The story was adapted for an American audience and Mee approved the changes. The actual zoo Mee bought is Dartmoor Zoological Park, located in Devon, England. The fictional zoo in the film is called Rosemoor Wildlife Park and is located in California.
In real life, Benjamin's wife, Katherine, died after they had already bought the zoo and moved in. In the film, Benjamin bought the zoo after her death. In real life, Benjamin's father had died and his mother needed to move; the farm cost the same price as his parent's house, and his mother came too. Benjamin and his family made a specific and informed decision to buy a zoo. In the film, it occurred as a result of finding a house they liked.
Instead of an escaping bear, as portrayed by the film, it was a jaguar called Sovereign that had escaped. Benjamin's children were also younger (aged four and six respectively) than the children in the film.
In the film, the zoo was much easier to buy. In real life, it took almost two years to buy. Benjamin's first offer to buy the zoo was rejected due to his lack of experience in the zoological world. Finally, the real zoo opened on Saturday July 7, 2007. The movie moved that event up to the same date in 2010. This later date fell on a Wednesday, but was identified in the script as the original Saturday.
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