Review first published 18/03/2012
Based on the memoir by Benjamin Mee, this film follows a fictionalised version of Benjamin as he relocates his family following the death of his wife and his son’s expulsion from school. The house to which he relocates has an added extra which comes with the property… a run down zoo which has all the accompanying problems of looking after the animals, breathing new life into the zoo, diminishing funds and an imminent inspection before the zoo is allowed to open.
When I heard that Hollywood was taking on this project, I was caught between two camps as I know of Mee’s story through the documentary “Ben’s Zoo” which was produced by BBC television. On the one hand, it was good to see Mee’s story be presented to a wider audience whilst being concerned that it could be “Hollywoodised”.
Although the story has had the Hollywood treatment, I can say that this is a solid family film, albeit one with some middle of the road level swearing.
There are the Hollywood staples that come with a film such as this – family relocates with some conflict as one member doesn’t want to go – check, lead character comes into conflict with people doubtful of his motives – check, comedy authority figure to poke fun at – check. However, this isn’t a film purely of cliche and it’s down to several factors.
Firstly, the acting. Matt Damon leads a well balanced ensemble cast who can not only play the emotion of the film but the comedic side too. He ably portrays Mee as a family man who is looking to provide a stable environment for his children whilst looking to rebuild not only the zoo, but himself as well.
His main adult co-star in Scarlett Johannson provides the appropriate measure of conflict, authority and, although she isn’t really meant to be a romantic interest, she provides an element of romantic interest in the role of head zookeeper, Kelly.
Thomas Haden Church embodies a lot of the comedic element in the role of Duncan Mee, a man who is undergoing the after effects of a divorce and who tries to be the person who tries to give Benjamin a dose of sanity whilst looking to help him to start living again following his wife’s passing.
The three junior leads are all excellent. Elle Fanning follows her role in last year’s “Super 8” with another solid performance in the role of Lily. Although she doesn’t get a great deal of screen time, in comparison to her role in “Super 8”, she brings an energetic performance as a naive teenager who has lived within the confines of the countryside and who is fascinated by the newcomers from the city.
Colin Ford has a tough task of turning a cliche character of the rebellious teenager who doesn’t share his father’s lifestyle choice into a likeable performance. Ford handles this along with the emotion of a boy trying to come to terms with his mother’s death perfectly as I felt sympathetic to the character of Dylan and the difficulties he was having rather than feeling that he was a bit of brat.
Maggie Elisabeth Jones, the youngest of the three main junior cast members, is fantastic in the role of Rosie. Whilst she has to maintain the role of the cute youngster, she does so with a great sense of comedy timing whilst not falling into the trap of making the character sugary sweet.
The direction by Cameron Crowe is beautiful to look at, especially when the Mee family arrive at the Rosemoor Zoo when the cinematography comes into its own to add character to the film. Additionally, he directs the film to add enough emotional punch to the scenes which involves Benjamin recalling his wife without it becoming maudling.
The script by Crowe and Ailine Brosh McKenna, who scripted last year’s “Morning Glory” ticks the boxes of being a family film about a family who takes the leap into the unknown – in this case of opening a zoo, the importance of common goals and friendships and the need to look to the future whilst acknowledging that the past will always be with you. There are some timeline and incident liberties taken between the script and the role story of the Mee family, but it is surprising how much of the story is recognisable if you know of the real Benjamin Mee.
The final element of the film that I wish to speak of in this review is the soundtrack predominantly by Jonsi Birgisson of the Icelandic band Sigur Ros. It struck a chord in me because it had both the emotion of a family who was still grieving and the wide eyed optimism of the undertaking by the Mees and the people who work at the zoo. It also features tracks by Neil Young, Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers and Cat Stevens, to name but a few and this will be getting repeat plays in my reading time.
Whilst it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, this is a nice film about the importance of family, friendships and people.