Yes! Forget that sentimental horse tale and that see-spot-run action flick -- fill your Christmas stocking with Matt Damon and company's We Bought a Zoo. Damon finally shines with great direction from Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire) who makes you care about each character and identify with Damon's addiction to adventure. "Don't give up on our adventure," Damon tells his family. This true story of Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) will leave you feeling as though you, too, need a new adventure. Maybe not a zoo, but a risk.
Benjamin Mees's wife dies suddenly. In the process of grieving he feels a need to change his surroundings, his life. With two small children, he finds a house that appeals to him but is attached to a dilapidated zoo.
"Why did you buy this place?" he is asked.
"Why not?" he says.
"He'll never last," the keepers of the zoo grumble.
"I like this house." He says. "This is a spiritual journey. We're all in cages."
Benjamin, who had been a journalist, knows nothing about zoos but he rapidly learns. His children's performances are refreshingly real while the animals are photographed with such caring that each ostrich, peacock, zebra, lion, tiger, grizzly and snake becomes a character.
Enter Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson) as one of a handful who has been in charge of maintaining the zoo. A delight, she portrays a strong, independent presence and spouts lines like, "And if I wanted to be kissed by you, you wouldn't have a choice," to an incredulous, wide-eyed Benjamin.
Benjamin's brother, Duncan Mee, played by Thomas Haden Church, has a smaller part than his comedic talents merit, but he keeps the film moving as he is in charge of Benajamin's finances and his common sense. He jolts the film with energy as does all three feet ten inches of Maggie Elizabeth Jones, age 7, who portrays Rosie Mee. Her fresh face and uniquely adorable personality prove she has a big career in front of her. Colin Ford is her older brother, Dylan Mee, and complements Rosie Mee with his struggle to shed the ghost of their beloved mother.
The Mee family's struggle to overcome grief underscores this film. It is part of the joy of We Bought a Zoo to gradually see this grief dissipate.
John Michael Higgins portrays Walter Ferris, an inspector who arrives to inspect the zoo to determine if it should be shut down. Higgins is a bit broad in his portrait and hints at an unreal presence, but this can be ignored due to rest of the cast's fine acting. Part of this is, of course, due to Crowe's direction of Higgins. When Higgins enters, the film needs conflict.
Cameron Crowe and Aline Brosh wrote the screenplay from Mee's memoir.
If you want to put a big present under your tree, get several tickets to We Bought a Zoo and enjoy bringing in the New Year with the extended family of Benjamin Mee.