2011 Running time: 119 Certificate: pg Rating: 3
KA We Bought A Zoo

Synopsis

Unlike most dads, Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) actually expects his kids to get involved in monkey business. Following the death of his wife, Benjamin finds the perfect place for a fresh start in the Californian hills. There's just one catch - it's attached to a living, breathing and financially struggling zoo. But luckily, it also comes with fiercely dedicated keeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) and her wildly enthusiastic crew. Family adventures don't come warmer or fuzzier than this true story-based caper from the director of Jerry Maguire.

Director

  • Cameron Crowe

Cast

  • Matt Damon

  • Scarlett Johansson

  • Thomas Haden Church

  • Elle Fanning

  • Lukas Haas

Review

Keep the insulin handy as there's enough sugar in this family snuggle-up to put a rhino into diabetic shock.

Based on the memoir by Benjamin Mee - an Englishman who revived a failing wildlife park on Dartmoor - Cameron Crowe's first directing job since 2005's forgotten Elizabethtown shifts the story to leafy California and reimagines Benjamin as an all-American dad, played by a never-cuddlier Matt Damon.

Feeling stifled after the recent death of his wife, Damon's Benjamin jacks in his job as a roving reporter and uproots his kids - difficult teenager Dylan (Colin Ford) and excitable seven-year-old Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) - to his dream place in the country.

But while making a new home often requires a little work, it usually doesn't involve housing, feeding, and caring for around 200 exotic animals. With lions, sick tigers, and depressed bears... oh my.

"We bought a zoo!" squeaks Rosie (frequently). Indeed they did, and Benjamin has all the legal and financial headaches to prove it. Oh Mee, oh my.

Thankfully, he can always rely on his kindly brother (Thomas Haden Church) and the zoo's doughty staff, who not only work for peanuts but provide a little romantic interest.

There's a cutie for dad - feisty head keeper Kelly (Johansson) - and a cutie for Dylan: her home-schooled niece Lily (Super 8 sweetheart Fanning). But father and son have to work out their own bereavement issues first.

More pressingly, sulking is of use to neither man nor beast if they don't get the place up to scratch for the nitpicky, all-powerful zoo inspector (John Michael Higgins).

As ever, Crowe creates an easy vibe, with Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi laying down a mellow soundtrack - enhanced by every cool cats from Bon Iver to Bob Dylan - and Benjamin calling everybody "man".

Lob in the tree-hugging angle and it feels like a Yellow Pages advert for Friends Of The Earth... from 1969.

But as we amble over the gently familiar terrain, we come across a completely new species: an endearing performance from Scarlett Johansson.

For that we can thank Damon, who - following his touching scenes with Bryce Dallas Howard in the otherwise moribund Hereafter and the sparkling chemistry he generated with Emily Blunt in The Adjustment Bureau - clearly brings out the best in his female co-stars.

It isn't the wildest safari you'll ever go on, but it has plenty of attractions to offer less cynical visitors.

Elliott Noble