We Bought a Zoo

Movie review by
S. Jhoanna Robledo, Common Sense Media
We Bought a Zoo Movie Poster Image
Popular with kids
Family film tackles grief with humor and deep empathy.
  • PG
  • 2011
  • 124 minutes

Parents say

age 12+
Based on 91 reviews

Kids say

age 10+
Based on 113 reviews

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

The film is chock full of positivity. Mee and his team at the zoo all work together for a common good. Open communication, empathy, and effort make the new venture work and help heal the family.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Mee is genuinely interested in giving his kids a new adventure so that they, and he, can find joy again after his wife's death. He makes mistakes, but through it all, he keeps the lines of communication open with his kids, especially his 14-year-old, who starts out as rebellious and surly (he steals, kicks snakes, yells and swears at his dad, etc. -- i.e. not someone to emulate) but improves. Even Mee's brother, who doesn't always see things his way, winds up supportive. Kelly is a strong woman who's confident about her zookeeping skills and has genuine affinity for the animals.

Violence

Some moments may seem dangerous, especially to young viewers. Some of the teenage son's dark, violent drawings are shown; including one of a decapitated head with blood squiring from the neck. The son also kicks a snake as if it were a soccer ball. Some threats ("I'm going to kill him" and someone saying they'd feed their in-laws to tigers -- said as a joke) and a humorous reference to using a tranquilizer gun on a human. In addition to the tranq guns, one apparently real gun is seen.

Sex

Some flirtation between two teens and two adults; a kiss. Also some mild innuendo related to both humans and animals. A maternity portrait shows a woman topless -- nothing sensitive is shown, and it's not sexual, but her shirt is off.

Language

Language includes "s--t," "damn," "a--hole," "d--k," "hell," "oh my God" (as an exclamation), and more. Some of the swearing is done by kids.

Consumerism

Labels/brands seen include Apple, Stella Artois, Budweiser, Rolling Rock, GMC, Ford, Subway, Paxil, Target, and Home Depot.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A few scenes of social drinking among adults and references to drinking; many photos of the passed-away wife include drinks. Mentions of animals' medications and a joke about how a tiger will get a "major buzz" from them.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that director Cameron Crowe's drama inspired by real-life events revolves around a family dealing with the loss of a beloved mother. As such, some moments of reminiscing and discussion about her death may be too sad/intense for younger kids. There's also quite a bit of swearing for a PG-rated movie (including "s--t"), some social drinking and flirting, creepy images (in drawings by an unhappy teenage boy), and the implication that the Easter Bunny isn't real. Nevertheless, We Bought a Zoo (which stars Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson) is a heartfelt and inspiring film about how a family pulls through difficulty and how being with animals -- and those who care for them -- can help heal the soul.

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User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byTrails2Ocean March 24, 2012

Nasty language, not appropriate for children

So disappointed, completely unnecessary bad language ruined the movie for me. Screaming between father and son also inappropriate for children viewers. It c... Continue reading
Parent Written byKelleymama August 3, 2014

beware of language

Beware, Easter Bunny spoiler.. not for your child if they still believe. I agree with many reviews that this story was great and ruined by a little girl callin... Continue reading
Kid, 9 years old May 10, 2013

SERIOUSLY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Ok I will admit that language is a problem, but honestly the film is PG and I wouldn't be surprised if it was a U!!!!!!
Kid, 12 years old May 23, 2020

Great family movie

This movie is very positive and perfect for family watching! I rated it 11+ because of the language and some violent and scary pictures that may hurt smaller or... Continue reading

What's the story?

It's been six months since journalist Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) lost his wife to terminal illness, and his family is fraying at the edges. His 14-year-old son, Dylan (Colin Ford), has been expelled from school. His 7-year-old daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), acts as if she has no time for play dates, so worried is she about her father and about helping out, even if it's just making PBJ sandwiches. Mee is anxious for all of them to heal, as is his brother (Thomas Haden Church), but he doesn't know how to help the process along. A change of scenery is clearly in order, but does that really mean buying a house on the outskirts of Los Angeles that, yes, comes with a zoo that he has to manage? Considering that Mee has no experience, he must rely on zookeeper Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) and her team to pull through in time to pass inspections and open for the summer season.

Is it any good?

How lovely it is to be able to sit back and watch Cameron Crowe and Matt Damon do what they do best: make a wonderful film. WE BOUGHT A ZOO may not be the most thrilling, suspenseful film, and it may not be a laugh-fest, but it's just the tonic for days when you feel hopeless about the world and, yes, about modern-day movies. It's earnest but not preachy, down to earth but not self-consciously so. (A scene in which Mee and his son lay their grief bare seems so, well, real.)

And, since it's a Cameron Crowe film, the music is awesome, if a little too perfect -- which could be said about the ensemble of actors as well. (That said, while Johansson is appealing, she does sometimes press too hard with her portrayal, giving her character a bit of stridency. Whether this is intentional isn't clear.) Parallel romantic storylines between two teens and two adults seem a little on the nose, and a supposed rivalry between two zookeeping icons is extraneous. But these are all forgivable quibbles. In the end, We Bought a Zoo wears its heart on its sleeve and is all the better for it. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about We Bought a Zoo's messages. What is it saying about loss? About family? Are the characters realistic and relatable? How do you think you'd cope in similar circumstances?

  • Parents, talk to your kids about loss and how it can impact a person in many ways. Are there many different ways to grieve? Why?

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