If there was a prize for the “nicest guy in the world” then Matt Damon’s Benjamin Mee would be a surefire contender. We Bought A Zoo proves to be a winning formula of tragedy and new beginnings
Cameron Crowe loves a nice guy; a hard-working, well-intentioned, good-guy. We’ve seen it in everything from Say Anything to Jerry Maguire but Benjamin Mee in We Bought A Zoo might be the nicest of the lot. Crowe’s 2011 film is based on the true story of Dartmoor Zoological Park in Devon, southwest England, a country park bought by the Mee family in 2006, which was renovated and reopened as a zoo in 2007. Moving the story from England to the more commercially sound suburbs of an American state, Matt Damon plays Benjamin in a state of flux.
His wife, in the prime of her life, has tragically died, his teenage son is expelled from school, and Mee himself, struggling to come to terms with his wife’s death, quits his job at a local paper. Starting afresh, Mee decides to move his family to a dilapidated zoo for what he calls a new “adventure”. There he meets the toughened head keeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) and the rest of the ramshackle gang of zoo staff, barely keeping the place intact amidst the threat of closure. Along with Mee’s purchase of the estate’s home comes some respite for the zoo’s staff, who realise their jobs are secure (at least for now), while the animals have a chance of survival given their inevitable destruction if the zoo were to close. Mee also crosses paths with Walt Ferris (John Michael Higgins), a by-the-book USDA inspector who deems the zoo unworthy to look after animals or be open to the public. He gives the father-of-two a deadline in which to make the necessary changes or face closure (and financial ruin).
We Bought A Zoo is an easy-going, easy-to-like comedy drama about a family reconnecting following the tragic loss of a loved one. There is particular emphasis on Mee’s relationship with his angry teenage son who has turned to drawing violent illustrations in order to sidestep his grief. Mee himself has become withdrawn, cutting himself off from his favourite haunts such as the restaurant where he first met his wife. The zoo becomes Mee’s personal battle to extricate himself from the despair he feels in the aftermath of his wife’s passing while fulfilling a long, lost dream to accomplish something truly worthy that touches not only his life but the lives of his children and those around him.
It is a very wholesome tale that, while playing the tragedy card a little too often, manages to pull at the heartstrings without feeling artificial. Crowe sugar coats just about everything, only stopping short of a final reveal to show that the Mee family’s wife and mother wasn’t really dead after all. That does dampen the impact of the key relationships such as Mee’s son’s sudden infatuation with a young staff member, and the obvious coming-together of Mee’s widower and the far-too attractive head zoo keeper (who is miraculously single and unlucky in love). Crowe’s strength in his music choices ably glosses over the thinly written romance but can’t completely hide it.
But the film’s real strength lies in Matt Damon’s character. He’s an everyman with universal problems. That he deals with them through a strong heart and a perfectly tuned moral compass makes him the sort of guy you’d be glad to be friends with. That he tops up his application for “nicest guy in the world” by saving a zoo, its animals and several jobs, while simultaneously guiding his young family out of their grief and laying the platform for them to prosper in future without stepping on any toes along the way, surely means he’s a given for the top prize. We Bought A Zoo may be gooey and sentimental but it worked for this cry baby.