Tuesday, December 27, 2011

We Bought a Zoo [2011]

MPAA (PG) CNS/USCCB (A-III) Roger Ebert (2 1/2 Stars) Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review
We Bought a Zoo (directed and co-written by Cameron Crowe along with Aline Brosh McKenna based on the book by Benjamin Mee about his experience of actually buying the Dartmoor Zoo in rural England after his wife's death) is a somewhat hokey, certainly formulaic but still very nice family movie about Benjamin Mee (played in the movie by Matt Damon) and his kids, 14 year old Dylan (played by Colin Ford) and truly sweetie-pie 7 year-old Rosie (played by Maggie Elizabeth Jones) who buy a farm (in the movie in rural Southern California) following the death of their wife/mother Catherine Mee (appearing occasionally in dreams and conversations, played by Stephanie Szostak).

Both grieving and starting on such a surprising project as a result offer inevitable challenges, that provide the nuts and bolts material for the project.  Yet, make no mistake about it, the film is about coping the loss of a loved one and struggling to find a future afterwards. "The Zoo" becomes an obvious metaphor not unlike Forrest Gump's "box of chocolates:" In life you don't know what's coming and you meet a lot of "interesting animals" (people) all of which need some care.  And lest there be too much actual equivalence between people and animals, we hear the initially skeptical older brother of Benjamin, Duncan Dee (played by Thomas Haden Church) declare quite sincerely near the end of the film: "You know, I do love the animals, but I really love the people."

And the Dees meet plenty of wonderful if at times eccentric people along the way -- including chief zoo-keeper Kelly Foster (played by Scarlet Johannsen) and her daughter Lilly (played by Elle Fanning), zoo designer Peter MacCready (played by Angus Macfadyen) and even state inspector and chief "villain" in the story Walter Ferris (played by John Michael Higgins).

Again, the plot is often very predicatable but it is also quite respectful of reality.  For instance, everyone probably expects a romance to begin between widower Benjamin Mee and Kelly the zookeeper.  After all, Kelly is both very nice and, well, "looks like Scarlet Johannsen" ;-).  But (if this is spoiler, so be it...) this does not happen, as it probably would not happen in real life.  Instead, it is obvious that the Dees have still a lot grieving to do, and they all make _some_ but still incomplete progress along the way.

As such I have to say that I really liked this movie (and was actually surprised how much I liked it).  It's sad, but it's also happy and it makes for a nice reflection on the life that we're given and which often doesn't necessarily go the the way that we'd like but ... if we step back a bit ... we can hopefully find that we're generally given quite a lot in life and certainly plenty of opportunities to make lots and lots of friends.

Indeed, even with that kind of rudimentary reflection we could perhaps appreciate that we really do have "someone up there" who is looking after all of us ;-).

As a final note to parents: while the subject is clearly about the loss of a loved one, which can be intrinsically hard for young kids to deal with, this film has been made with very, very gently, with a great deal of sensitivity.  So I wouldn't be afraid to take anyone to this movie.  The subject matter may not be something you'd want to take your kids to over the Christmas holidays.  However if you or your friends have lost someone close to you, recently, the film could be useful to you.  And I certainly wouldn't be afraid of taking kids really of any age to this film.  It's really done quite well.


First, in the Servite Novena of Our Lady of Sorrows, there is a line has long struck me, noting that "throughout her life Mary chose do to what God wanted her to do and not necessarily what she had wanted to do."  Yes, like in the case of the family of this movie, there are occasionally events that happen in our lives that we'd wish didn't happen (times when we don't even have a choice but to respond/accept what happens).  And there are also times in our lives that we do have to make choices between what we'd really like to do and what'd really be for a greater good, for the sake of loved ones, country, community, and yes for God and Church.  (One thinks here of Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life [1946]).  Often what makes us truly Great are the times when we make the choice to do what is truly Good ...

Second, an image that has stuck with me for years since my time in the Seminary where we did study pastoral care for the dying and grieving has been understanding our lives as a web of relationships (and this before the internet became so much a part of our lives;-).

The loss of a loved one makes a tear in this web.  The size and scope of the tear depend both on the role that the loved one had in our lives prior to his/her death and then the circumstances of the death.  The sudden, violent death of a loved one is often the hardest for survivors to overcome.  Yet eventually our web does mend.  The web will show a scar as a result of the loss and the size of the scar will again depend on the importance of that loved one in our lives and the circumstances of his/her death.  But our lives will eventually continue anew.

The above insight is not my own.  It comes from a book that I read during my time in the seminary, but I no longer remember the name of the book...  But I do think that many who've experienced the untimely death of a loved one (as indeed, my family had.  I lost my mother when I was 22 and I'm approaching my mother's age when she died) will appreciate the value of the "web", "tear" "mending" "with a scar remaining" imagery in the metaphor.

And the family in this movie was clearly trying to find a way to "mend" the tear caused by the loss of their wife/mother.

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  1. hmmmm i gota check this out, on rental. it just seems a bit...contrived... which isn't like the crowe i know and love

  2. Yup, it is a bit contrived (even though it is based on a true story of a family that did this -- bought a zoo -- in rural England). But then kids' movies often are contrived and "the zoo" comes to play well as a metaphor for life.

    Very few people would have the money or the interest to actually buy a zoo. But the image may still work on a symbolic level.

    After all:

    "All the World is a Stage" (William Shakespeare)

    "Life is a Cabaret, old chum ..." (from the title song of the musical "Cabaret")

    "Life is a circus" (from any number of Felini films...)