We Bought a Zoo: The wild, true, heart-warming story of Benjamin Mee
We Bought a Zoo is the magical, unbelievable and deeply moving true story of Benjamin Mee; the man who ignored all the doubters to refurbish and reopen a full-scale zoo, with his two children in tow.
After the death of his wife, Benjamin (Matt Damon) decides that he and his family need a fresh start and a new home – it just so happens that their perfect family home is also a zoo. After meeting the oddball collection of staff including head keeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), the sweet Lily (Elle Fanning) and all the animals, Benjamin finds he can’t turn his back on the zoo, risking financial ruin to bring it up to standard for the looming inspection. A complete novice, he relies on the expertise and passion of the dedicated staff and his own pure determination to get them through.
Cameron Crowe said what drew him to the story was that it comes from truth. It is this element that shines through in the movie more than anything else. Perhaps not in the ins and outs of the plot and story line (there are some substantial revisions), but in the feeling: the hope, joy, difficulty, but also the ultimate optimism of the whole bizarre adventure. This film is perfectly reflected in and amplified by the wonderful notes of the soundtrack by Jónsi of Sigur Rós.
The story has certainly been given a glass of Hollywood. Shot in California, rather than on location at Dartmoor Zoo as Mee would have preferred, the plot device of changing the timing of Benjamin’s wife’s death, the characterisation of his children Dylan (Colin Ford) and Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), and his brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church) are all quite far from the truth. Typically, too, Crowe has added some take-away one-liners and moments of strange comedy that are transparently Hollywood.
It would have been nice to see a more stripped-down version of the story that is closer to Mr Mee’s book. It is an extraordinary story after all; it doesn’t need additions! However, Crowe’s changes do not muddy the true message and deeper meanings of the film. We Bought a Zoo is, in places, rather difficult to watch (even more so at last night’s preview at Mayfair Hotel, knowing Mr Mee and his family were in the audience) because it is intensely personal and honestly felt. It is a story about a man overcoming his wife’s death and trying to pull his family together.
During the screening Q&A, Mr Mee explained that after his wife passed, it was the on-going ecosystem of the zoo that really helped him to pull through. Life in the zoo goes on, and so must he. Cameron Crowe has a certain knack for human stories. In We Bought a Zoo any additions, or moves away from the “truth”, serve only to highlight the magical nature of Mr Mee’s project. Moreover, the greater the audience of the film, the better for Mr Mee’s zoo, which is still up and running at the astronomical cost of £1,000 per day. If We Bought a Zoo inspires people to visit Dartmoor Zoo (and it should; the place is unique, beautiful and a gem in the community of Dartmoor) then all the better for Mr Mee, his staff and all the wonderful animals.
Mr Mee says that if he could go back and do the whole thing again, he would; he has no regrets. He also said that in a choice between people and animals, animals win every time – they are easier to deal with. We Bought a Zoo certainly shows this, but in the end Mr Mee overcame all the obstacles – human and animal – to create something true, unique, and completely priceless. This film is about grief and loss, but also about bravery and having those twenty seconds of insane courage to do something completely different: having the nerve to say “why not?”
Watch the trailer for We Bought a Zoo here