A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
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.
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?
- In theaters: December 23, 2011
- On DVD or streaming: April 3, 2012
- Cast: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church
- Director: Cameron Crowe
- Studio: Twentieth Century Fox
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Wild Animals
- Run time: 124 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: language and some thematic elements
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Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.