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Family film a little too American?

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DVD review: ‘We Bought a Zoo.’ Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. 124 minutes. Rated PG.

Lions glare, peacocks strut, tigers “chuff,” bears rear menacingly and humans fall in love in We Bought a Zoo, a light li’l Christmas film, originally released on December 23. Based on a true story, the movie did a decent $103.7 million worldwide in its theater release. Now Fox wants to market it to the faith-based crowd.

We Bought a Zoo benefits from its basis in British writer Benjamin Mee’s book about how his family learned to care for the 200 animals of the Dartmoor Wildlife Park in southwest England. The book reportedly has a lot of animal lore and inside info on caring for them.

In the film version, though, we get a lot of American flourishes.

American flourish #1: Benjamin is played by still-hunky Matt Damon, a widower who seems eager to move to the countryside to escape the women who want to snap him up. He buys a rural house almost sight unseen, realizing too late that it comes with a menagerie.

American flourish #2: Teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford). Sullen and rebellious, of course. Not only because of Mom’s passing, but because moving will take him away from his girlfriend. While the family and crew work to improve the zoo, Dylan sits around, morosely drawing gothic pictures.

American flourish #3: Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), Benjamin’s small daughter, who is almost unbearably cute and excruciatingly precocious.

American flourish #4: A simmering attraction between Benjamin and Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), the head zookeeper. But no worries, it’s still a PG film.

Benjamin’s real appeal is his sense of responsibility in caring for the zoo, putting his back into it, even risking his financial health, when he could have walked away. Also a plus is when he reaches out to his disaffected son. Of course, the theme of the Failed Father Who Gets Another Chance is still another American flourish.

And don’t feel sorry for son Dylan: He finds his match in a young beauty, Lily, played by Elle Fanning, Dakota’s younger sister. Her pearly skin and heart-melting smile eventually win over even the introverted boy.

The top stars are, of course, the animals. An elderly tiger locks eyes with Benjamin as if trying to make him understand how ill it is. Peacocks bond with Rosie and cluster around her.

All the work is necessary because of American flourish #5: The Villain, in this case a state safety inspector. Good casting, though: It’s played by John Michael Higgins, a master of the smirk and snide remark.

Now that the film has gone to video, promoters like Allied Faith & Family are touting it as a spiritually based flick, a parable of reconciliation, family love, sacrifice, even “how all of God’s creatures can exist in harmony.” It seems a bit of a stretch, given the lack of distinct religious or spiritual content in the film.

We Bought a Zoo also stands on its own merits as a general family film. That’s enough for many families — in and out of church — who want competently made films that won’t offend kids.

Whether it will bore parents is another issue. Some may say, “Oh, geez, there wasn’t a plot twist I couldn’t see coming!” But I suspect most will say, “Cut ’em some slack! At least no one is getting bitten by zombies or shot by criminals!”

James D. Davis


Written by Jim Davis

April 3, 2012 at 11:21 am

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