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ON FAITH & MEDIA View Comments

We Bought a Zoo

By
John P. McCarthy
Source: Catholic News Service


Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson star in a scene from the movie "We Bought a Zoo."
Of the various endangered species populating "We Bought a Zoo" (Fox), a man hoping for sufficient time to grieve his wife's death is arguably the most threatened.

Based on the real-life experiences of British writer Benjamin Mee, this amiable and ambling holiday feature puts a Capraesque twist on the notion of caretaking in the wake of loss, and has some star wattage to boost its commercial prospects. If only it didn't endorse society's expectation that "getting over" the death of a loved one must happen within a prescribed time period.

Matt Damon stars as Mee, a Los Angeles newspaper columnist struggling with his parental responsibilities six months after his wife's passing. Harried and dissatisfied with his job writing about other people's adventures, he misses his wife terribly, and finds rote expressions of sympathy unhelpful.

His precocious 7-year-old, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), and 14-year-old son, Dylan (Colin Ford), aren't faring too well either. Rosie has trouble picturing her mother's face, and Dylan gets expelled from school, mostly for creating morbid art that expresses his anger and deep sadness.

Benjamin's brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church) urges more human interaction, i.e., dating, but Benjamin takes a different tack. He quits his job after deciding a change of scene—and the opportunity to live their own adventure—is what the family needs. They move from the city to an 18-acre rural property that contains a ramshackle zoo. Can they fix it up, pass inspection and open for business in time for the peak season?

Trying to resuscitate Rosemoor Animal Park may well bring financial ruin and further alienate father and son. Fortunately, however, along with exotic animals the zoo comes with a staff of five humans, two of whom are potential love interests for the Mee males—head keeper Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) and vivacious teen Lily (Elle Fanning).

As is only to be expected from former music journalist-turned-helmer Cameron Crowe ("Almost Famous" and "Jerry Maguire"), the soundtrack utilizes plenty of rock- 'n'-roll ballads. Crowe's direction is easygoing, and the script he co-wrote with Aline Brosh McKenna doesn't belabor the peril or the romantic possibilities. Attempts at zany humor never really hit their mark, though Haden Church gives it his best. Not overly glossy by Hollywood standards, it's a tame picture with minimal conflict. There's little doubt all will turn out well.

Potentially chafing to Catholic viewers is a parallel storyline about a Bengal tiger. Benjamin's instinct is to nurse the regal animal, which is dying of natural causes. But the argument is vehemently made that the humane and moral course of action is to end the creature's suffering by hastening its death. This unquestioned assumption, and the way it mirrors the widower's coming to grips with his primary loss, reminds us we're part of a culture whose prevailing attitudes toward life and death must be carefully parsed.

These three points notwithstanding, "We Bought a Zoo" is commendable entertainment—not least because it emphasizes the importance of hard work in achieving anything of value, whether therapeutic or zoological.

The film contains at least one instance of profanity, several uses of crude and crass language, some lightly suggestive banter and a few morbid images. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG—parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

*****
McCarthy is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.





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Philip Neri: Philip Neri was a sign of contradiction, combining popularity with piety against the background of a corrupt Rome and a disinterested clergy, the whole post-Renaissance malaise. 
<p>At an early age, he abandoned the chance to become a businessman, moved to Rome from Florence and devoted his life and individuality to God. After three years of philosophy and theology studies, he gave up any thought of ordination. The next 13 years were spent in a vocation unusual at the time—that of a layperson actively engaged in prayer and the apostolate. </p><p>As the Council of Trent (1545-63) was reforming the Church on a doctrinal level, Philip’s appealing personality was winning him friends from all levels of society, from beggars to cardinals. He rapidly gathered around himself a group of laypersons won over by his audacious spirituality. Initially they met as an informal prayer and discussion group, and also served poor people in Rome. </p><p>At the urging of his confessor, he was ordained a priest and soon became an outstanding confessor, gifted with the knack of piercing the pretenses and illusions of others, though always in a charitable manner and often with a joke. He arranged talks, discussions and prayers for his penitents in a room above the church. He sometimes led “excursions” to other churches, often with music and a picnic on the way. </p><p>Some of his followers became priests and lived together in community. This was the beginning of the Oratory, the religious institute he founded. A feature of their life was a daily afternoon service of four informal talks, with vernacular hymns and prayers. Giovanni Palestrina was one of Philip’s followers, and composed music for the services. </p><p>The Oratory was finally approved after suffering through a period of accusations of being an assembly of heretics, where laypersons preached and sang vernacular hymns! (Cardinal Newman founded the first English-speaking house of the Oratory three centuries later.) </p><p>Philip’s advice was sought by many of the prominent figures of his day. He is one of the influential figures of the Counter-Reformation, mainly for converting to personal holiness many of the influential people within the Church itself. His characteristic virtues were humility and gaiety.</p> American Catholic Blog We need do no more than we are doing at present; that is, to love divine Providence and abandon ourselves in his arms and heart.<br />—St. Padre Pio

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