“We Bought a Zoo”: Zoo Therapy For a Grieving Widower

Did I think “schmaltzy” at least once or twice while watching We Bought a Zoo on the plane ride home from my vacation? Yup.

Did I also feel things that mattered even more times than that? Yup again.

Whereas Richard Corliss at Time calls Zoo “pure cornography,” Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune differs. He points out that Matt Damon, as lead character Benjamin Mee, is largely responsible for keeping that very same element in check. “Damon, thank the family-friendly-movie gods, really knows how to hold his head above the corn,” Phillips says.

The film is based on a true story about a grieving widower with two kids to raise. Fourteen-year-old angry, sullen Dylan is acting out at school, while seven-year-old adorable Rosie shows signs of becoming overly self-sufficient and parentified in the wake of her mom’s loss.

Benjamin yearns so much to get to a better space emotionally for himself and his kids that he abruptly quits his job and makes a questionable move to a different physical space—a house with a zoo that happens to be in just as much need of repair as each of their hearts.

Along with the purchase of the zoo grounds comes its motley crew—not the least important of which is zookeeper Kelly, played by Scarlett Johansson. Like many who choose work that involves caring for animals, she comes across as being more concerned with their well-being than with people’s—or even her own.

Time for the trailer:

Can you can immediately see where it’s all going? Most assuredly. As James Berardinelli, ReelViews, notes, however: “The general sense of blandness and predictability that marks the story’s progression does not damage its emotional strengths. We feel for these characters and, because we care about them, we yearn for the highs the film ultimately delivers.”

Amy Biancolli, San Francisco Chronicle: “The film is sweet. Its observations of life in the aftermath of death ring true, especially for anyone who’s traveled the contours of mourning.”

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone: “There’s a lot of fun waiting at We Bought a Zoo, but it’s the feelings that run through every scene that’ll make you glad you came.”

Richard Roeper: “This is a sweet, funny, unapologetically sentimental film.”

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