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Movie Review

We Bought a Zoo

MPAA Rating: PG for language and some thematic elements.

Reviewed by: Jeremy Landes

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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Adults Teens
Family Comedy Drama
2 hr. 4 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
December 23, 2011 (wide—3,000+ theaters)
DVD: April 3, 2012
Copyright, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation click photos to ENLARGE Copyright, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation Copyright, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation Copyright, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation Copyright, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation Copyright, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation Copyright, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Relevant Issues
Copyright, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

career change

animals in the Bible

raising endangered animals

caring for a young family




wife and husband

brain cancer

Where did CANCER come from? Answer

How did bad things come about? Answer

Why does God allow innocent people to suffer? Answer

What about the issue of suffering? Doesn’t this prove that there is no God and that we are on our own? Answer

Does God feel our pain? Answer

What kind of world would you create? Answer

Featuring: Scarlett JohanssonKelly Foster
Matt DamonBenjamin Mee
Elle FanningLily Miska
Carla Gallo … Rhonda
Thomas Haden ChurchDuncan Mee
more »
Director: Cameron Crowe—“Jerry Maguire
Producer: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
LBI Entertainment
more »
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

“based on a true story”

“We Bought a Zoo” is a family film. It has some profanity that makes it inappropriate for younger viewers. A widower father and his disturbed teenage son are portrayed as being in constant conflict. The death of a wife and mother overshadows the entire film. Yet, through all of this, you get to watch a family work hard together to fulfill a very noble goal that blesses their community. That’s rare and refreshing.

This film brought me to tears at numerous times, because the filmmakers worked hard to create believable characters (based on a true story), who I could respect and care about. Matt Damon portrays Benjamin Mee, a frustrated father who loves his kids deeply and wants to help them recover from the death of Katherine—his wife and their mom. Benjamin’s solution, he thinks, is to buy a house on 18 acres of land that also happens to be a zoo—complete with a large staff and dozens of animals. If Benjamin’s vision to re-open the zoo fails, he will lose all his money, the animals may be euthanized, and the staff will lose their jobs.

Running the zoo turns out to be slightly simpler for Benjamin than reaching the heart of his teenage son, Dylan (Colin Ford), who has been expelled from school. Every fourth scene in the film seems to depict Benjamin lecturing his son about his behavior and/or Dylan complaining about living in a zoo. Apart from the bickering, there’s comic relief from the seven-year-old daughter/sister, Rosie, who is thrilled to own a zoo and takes special care of the peacock chicks. There’s even a minor villain—a zoo inspector (played memorably by John Michael Higgins) who’s drunk on his own power and loves to remind the team that he’s watching them.

There’s a minor romantic subplot between Benjamin and the zookeeper, Kelly (played by Scarlett Johansson) that doesn’t go farther than a kiss. Also, 14-year-old Dylan begins to have romantic feelings for 12-year-old Lily (Elle Fanning), who works at the zoo. There is profanity sprinkled throughout, and there’s one instance where the 7-year-old uses foul language to address the zoo inspector.

If you go to this film, and I do heartily recommend it for families with kids who aren’t prone to imitative behavior, you can expect to have your heart tugged at—the music by Jonesi provides some powerful emotive cues throughout the movie. I rooted for these characters to overcome their suffering and succeed in their desires—to have a family adventure, to bless a lot of animals in need, to give their community a great zoo, and to be fully reconciled with one another, opening themselves up to love once more after a huge loss.

Co-writer and director Cameron Crowe is best known for “Jerry Maguire” and a teenage romance, “Say Anything,” and in those films, as well as “We Bought a Zoo,” he shows us men who have a vision for how their lives can be better and how they have to hustle and sacrifice to achieve huge goals. I loved Matt Damon’s portrayal of a flawed father whose love for his kids and need for healing causes him to “put skin in the game” and push himself, his family, and many others, harder than ever before. I can think of only two other films, “The Astronaut Farmer” and “Tucker: The Man and His Dream,” that have also shown visionary fathers so worthy of their family’s respect.

I bought into “We Bought a Zoo,” and I believe many other families will enjoy this film despite some flaws that quickly pass.

Violence: Mild / Profanity: Moderate / Sex/Nudity: Minor

See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.

Viewer CommentsSend your comments
Comments below:
Positive—Loved this movie! The characters were all really quirky and likable; it made me laugh numerous times… It was just so refreshing to find an original movie that didn’t follow all the usual pranks and pratfalls. I am definitely buying this one when it comes to DVD! Younger kids would probably get bored, as the movie is fairly long, and, as I said before, devoid of slapstick comedy. I would recommend it to anyone above ten… with some precautions, depending on how strict you are. There is maybe one sexual innuendo, much drinking, and a few s-words. However, I didn’t think these issues marred the movie at all.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Better than Average / Moviemaking quality: 5
—Kadie Jo, age 19 (USA)
Positive— Yes, there were 5 curse words, and, yes, the teenagers are a little young for a relationship, and disturbing drawings by the teenage boy. Positive: No sex, violence, etc… The father and son do have a tough time communicating, and the boy has a tough time with his mother’s death.

In the end, through the help of friends, the father learns to communicate, and the boy comes out of his very dark period. The family does not include God in their lives, but there are good examples about family, the value of hard work, not giving up, despite overwhelming odds, working together with very different personalities.

There are very few basically moral, family movies out there. The whole audience stood up and clapped, in the theater I attended.

You know your children, probably not appropriate for under maybe 10 years. Talk about the movie with your children, Deuteronomy 6:7, more good lessons then bad. If anyone associated with this movie reads this, thank you for doing your best to make an inspiring family movie. …
My Ratings: Moral rating: Better than Average / Moviemaking quality: 4
—Cindy Rolfe, age 55 (USA)
Positive—I thought this movie was great! Sure the objectionable content the other reviewers say, is there, however it has a great message. To see how in love he was with his wife after she died, it is adorable considering that is rare in our society. I also love animals, so I loved that part. The little girl is adorable, and, yes, it was not needed to have them both cuss, and, yes, they were too young to say to someone, “I love you.” But the movie was much better then I thought it would be. Worth watching.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Better than Average / Moviemaking quality: 5
—Samantha Taylor, age 37 (USA)
Neutral—It is hard to find movies that do not have swearing in them or subtle adult theme/image. Zoo did show the reality of a death of a parent, anger, grief, someone being so angry, and forgetting each grieve differently no matter the age. Rebellious teen is a good launching pad for parents. It shows how anger goes from inside, build from their to the mind, and through action and his art. It is a launching point for parents to share those evil images are not from God. They are from a tormented soul without God. There was no hint from this true movie that this family found comfort, peace, love, guidance from God through the lose of their mother/wife. God is our Comforter. So sometimes a movie might come across negative. God can turn it to good. A lesson to share with our family.

Yes, we can draw out our feelings, and yes we can write our feelings. But we need to seek God for our healing when it comes to a death. And time is a factor, it takes time to grieve. Jesus wept Jesus grieved But He Loved The ending I felt was appropriate; it is a way of letting go of the past (red kites) and moving forward after a death. Not clinging to the death, but remembering the person and their good qualities.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Average / Moviemaking quality: 2
—LD, age 62 (USA)
Negative—I went to see this movie with my Mom and brother expecting to see a heartwarming movie about a struggling, recently widowed father of two, and how he took a chance on something that no one thought would work, and yet made it work (bringing himself and his children closer together). Boy was I wrong.

First, parents be warned, this is NOT the warm and fuzzy family movie that it’s made to seem in the previews. There are many words that (though not the worst ever spoken) are still not appropriate for young children. Many “d” and “s” words were peppered throughout, and even more heartbreakingly, one inappropriate word uttered by a young child. All for the sake of getting a laugh out of the viewers.

There are also disturbing images shown throughout that are drawn by the family’s teenage boy. Maybe I’m just weak in the stomach, but more than once I had to look away. I didn’t want to have nightmares. And though there are talented actors and actresses in this movie, I found the movie itself to be poorly done. I had a hard time remembering that this was actually based on true events, because half of the people acted so ridiculous, over the top, and odd that I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be laughing, crying, or rolling my eyes. The oddness of the peoples” actions took away from the moments that were actually supposed to mean something.

Save your money and skip this move, I wish I had. But if you really want to see it, go without your children.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Very Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 1½
—MJ, age 23 (USA)
Negative—We hoped this would be a good family movie to watch, with it being rated PG, but, unfortunately, it turned out to have a lot of profanity in it, for this rating (with children cussing, as well)… it should be PG-13, for sure. We were disappointed in that. The good thing to come from the movie was the father’s love for his children and late wife… this could’ve been a very good movie, without the bad language. I wouldn’t want my children to watch it again…
My Ratings: Moral rating: Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 2½
—Tanya, age 41 (USA)
Negative—I recently rented this movie for our family to enjoy together. I was wrong in choosing this movie for our family. There were quite a few profanities, and when the little girl in the movie used the word d__k when talking to another character in the movie I was in shock. Immediately, two of my children repeated the word , wanting to know what it meant. I was simply horrified of the language in this movie and convicted of my poor choice. It should have been rating PG-13
My Ratings: Moral rating: Extremely Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 5
—Sherri Washington, age 39 (USA)
Comments from young people
Negative—First of all they have bad words in a kid movie. Second, they have the kids say bad words. Third, they say the “s” word the “d” word and the say “holy s***” that is so wrong!
My Ratings: Moral rating: Extremely Offensive / Moviemaking quality: ½
—Ali, age 14 (USA)
Positive—I saw this movie last week with my mom and brother, and I actually enjoyed it! I didn’t know much about it before I went, but I liked it. It’s very cute, but there are some emotional scenes. There are also some parts where the adults cuss. At one point, the 14 year old boy says a bad word, and the 7 year old girl says a word no 7 year old should say. But she did say she didn’t know what it meant.

The 14 year old also has some problems, and he draws very dark and creepy things like creatures from the underworld and decapitated people. These drawing kind of creeped me out, but I’ve seen worse.

But, overall, I thought it was a great movie. If you don’t really mind hearing cuss words or seeing kind of scary things, then I encourage you to see this movie, only if you’re maybe 10+.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Better than Average / Moviemaking quality: 4
—Emma, age 14 (USA)
Positive—I went with a friend of mine, same age, and we both laughed a lot and thought it was a good movie. However, there was a family sitting in front of us with a little boy, 7 or 8… and he had a lot of questions throughout the movie, as to what stuff was and what it meant. I was shocked at the language, s-words (throughout), d-words (I counted 4), and d_ck at a very crucial scene. I don’t know how strict you are, but, personally, I wouldn’t let anyone younger the age of 11 or 12 see this. It was good movie, and it touched a lot of emotions. I would laugh and then cry at the same scene. There are several scenes of heavy drinking, some sexual innuendos, and one kissing scene. Overall, it wasn’t bad in the moral sense, but, like I said, nobody younger than 11.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Average / Moviemaking quality: 5
—Macy, age 16 (USA)
Positive—This is an amazing movie—so very touching, in every way. Although, if you have younger children, you might want to preview this movie, because there is a lot of swearing in it. I was surprised, when it was not rated PG-13. And I think younger children might think this movie is boring. When I watched the preview for this movie, I thought that it was going to be a kids’ movie, but I think I was wrong. When I was walking out of the theater, after seeing it, I heard parents of younger children say that it was so not a kids movie, and the younger kids saying that it was boring, so I think the ages 5-8 might not like it.

But I know that I LOVED it. It is one of my favorite movies, right now. I know that I would take my friends to go see this movie. …I am so buying it!
My Ratings: Moral rating: Excellent! / Moviemaking quality: 5
—Meaghan, age 13 (USA)
Positive—…a very heartwarming film, with a great script, and a beautiful performance from Matt Damon. I am a huge fan of movie scores, and this one was outstanding, capturing every moment perfectly. This movie was a lot better then I would have predicted, and it was very inspiring. There was some language, one offensive d-word from the little girl, and at a certain point in the movie I wanted to spank the little boy, but, overall, it was a very well done film. A real tear jerker.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Average / Moviemaking quality: 4
—Aliya Mcreynolds, age 14 (USA)
Comments from non-viewers
Negative—I have not seen the movie. And it’s because I just don’t want to support anything Matt Damon does. He is such an outspoken mocker of Christian beliefs, and I don’t want to support that.
My Ratings: Moral rating: / Moviemaking quality:
—Joe, age 63 (USA)

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