We Bought a Zoo

Do you enjoy a good story with compelling and memorable heroes and heroines? This monthly column features homeschooled characters in literature and film. Wish you had your own copy of the book or movie? Just click on the product image or text links to go to the author’s site or Amazon to buy it!we bought a zoo“You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally, twenty seconds of embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.” ~Benjamin Mee


We Bought a Zoo is a 2011 family comedy-drama film loosely based on the 2008 memoir by Benjamin Mee titled We Bought A Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Broken-Down Zoo, and the 200 Animals That Changed a Family Forever. Set in Southern California, the movie stars Matt Damon as a Los Angeles newspaper columnist and adventure writer, who, as a recently widowed father, faces the challenge of raising his two children alone. Hoping that a fresh start will restore their family spirit, Mee quits his job and decides to move out of the city.

If you’re used to seeing Matt Damon as Jason Bourne or “The Martian,” you will be pleased to know that he did an excellent job as the heartbroken but hopeful family man based on the real character of Benjamin Mee. We Bought a Zoo also stars Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow in The Avengers), Thomas Haden Church (the Sandman in Spider-Man 3), Elle Fanning (Super 8, Maleficient), Patrick Fugit, Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, and John Michael Higgins.

In the movie, the idea of renovating and re-opening a dilapidated zoo came as an afterthought when the Mees were looking for a house in the country. Mee’s brother tries to dissuade him from purchasing the property, but Benjamin buys it anyway. Mee’s 14-year-old son, Dylan, who has been expelled from school, hates the idea of moving away from his friends and retreats into his artwork which has grown more macabre since the death of his mother. However, Mee’s 7-year-old daughter, Rosie, loves the idea. And when the 28-year-old head zookeeper, Kelly Foster, asks Mee why he bought the zoo since he knows nothing about running one, he simply responds “Why not?”

Kelly’s 13-year-old homeschooled cousin, Lily Miska, develops a romantic interest in Dylan – who is at first oblivious to this fact. A wide-eyed teen girl with a heart of gold, Lily helps out in the zoo’s restaurant and brings a sandwich to her crush every day just so she can see him. Even though homeschooling doesn’t feature prominently in this movie, it’s nice that the main homeschool character is portrayed to be as sweet as can be. (The actress Elle Fanning herself was homeschooled by her grandmother, but when it came time for high school she left homeschooling behind for proms and friends.)

Meanwhile, to complicate matters, a strict USDA inspector arrives for a surprise inspection. He makes a list of repairs that will cost around $100,000, which Mee does not have. Then Mee discovers that his wife bequeathed him an investment account, with instructions to use the money wisely while listening to his heart. Mee’s brother advises him to walk away and start over with the money, but Benjamin decides to use the money to repair the zoo.

Mee’s favorite principle is that you only need 20 seconds of courage to achieve great things. In spite of many twists and turns along the way, he and his family – along with the help of an eclectic staff – work hard to return the struggling zoo to its former glory. While doing so, Mee realizes that instead of trying to forget his late wife, he should accept that she will always be a part of him. As he does so, he and his family find fulfillment and hope by turning to life and joy in the love and service to others. Now, Mee is living an adventure story in his own backyard!

The movie’s plot is somewhat different from the actual events on which it was based. The real Benjamin Mee is British, but the story was adapted for an American audience and Mee approved the changes. The actual zoo that Mee bought is Dartmoor Zoological Park (formerly known as Dartmoor Wildlife Park) in Devon, England. The fictional zoo in the film is called Rosemoor Wildlife Park and is located in California. Also in real life, Mee and his family had made a specific an informed decision to buy a zoo, and it took them two years to do so. Mee’s first offer to buy the zoo was rejected due to his lack of experience in the zoological field, but finally he succeeded. Mee’s wife died after they had already bought the zoo and moved in.

We Bought a Zoo is a great family movie! It deals with real issues that normal families face: the loss of a parent, tension with raising teenagers, overcoming debt, trials and life changes, holding on to hope, and learning to thrive through it all. It goes to show what can be done when you set your mind to it despite having no experience, limited time, and a shoestring budget. The movie features an awesome musical score composed by Jonsi of the Icelandic band Sigur Ros, as well as other popular songs.

Did You Know…? We Bought a Zoo has a film companion that can be downloaded here. This study guide explores some of the most important themes raised by the movie. It can be used for personal enrichment, post-movie family conversations, and for larger group discussions.

The DVD (with the cover image shown at right) features a family-friendly audio track that you can select in the DVD menu, which gets rid of the strong language which was a little bit heavy for a PG film. It’s this specific version that was awarded the Dove “Family-Edited” Seal for ages 12 and over.

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