Benjamin Mee (a slightly older, slightly fatter, but good as ever Matt Damon) is an adventure-seeking writer, who just can't get over his wife Katherine who recently died. He stays home with his two kids as much as possible, avoiding everything that reminds him of her. Multiple pans of lasagna sit untouched in the fridge, given to the family by hopeful new additions. They eat peanut butter and jelly instead. Benjamin's well-meaning but often too practical and realistic brother Duncan, (Thomas Haden Church) adamantly encourages him to make a change; try dating one of those lasagna cooks; start over. So when his 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford) is expelled for stealing from his school, Ben decides then is a good time to move. He goes house-hunting with daughter Rosie, (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) who is seven. She picks out a house that's perfect, but the Realtor says it's complicated. They fall in love with it before he tells them; it's a zoo. Ben decides to buy it anyway because he's not one to pass on an adventure. The zoo hasn't been open in years, but a small staff led by Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) keeps it from falling apart. Mee hopes they can get it up-to-standards and running in time to open in July, just six months away.
This is probably one of the most predictable movies I've ever seen. Absolutely nothing surprised me. The conflict wasn't in the zoo plot though, (for older people anyway) it was the movie's relationships. Nothing surprised me there either, but let's dig in...
Benjamin and Kelly. They have a few romantically "sweet", (painfully awkward!) conversations, but he needs to move past his wife first. And he takes his time. The movie spends almost as much time with Ben and Katherine as it does with Ben and Kelly, with no real end, (or beginning, as the case may be) to the relationships.
Benjamin has no idea of what to do with his bitter son, who refuses to respond to his attempts to soothe their relationship. To be fair to Dylan though, his dad's attempts are pathetic and misguided, and usually end with Ben not listening, and another unresolved argument. If only he could treat his son with the same understanding he shows his daughter, there would be no conflict! ... Oh... right.
And then there's Dylan and Lily, (the very talented Elle Fanning) who is Kelly's 12-year-old cousin. The homeschooled, wildlife-loving girl obviously has a crush, and perfectly matches the ridiculous picture Hollywood has of homeschoolers. Awkward, and un-socialized, she apparently has no friends besides animals. She sits too close, and smiles way too much. He likes her, but still ignores her at first. She happily sticks around him anyway, until he carelessly says one thing that hurts her feelings. Then, of course, she won't talk to him anymore.
Silly attempts to make you think they won't fix the zoo in time, or won't pass the inspection or something equally obvious, made me think this movie was targeted toward young kids, but then the serious content was heavier than I honestly expected. While trying to create a movie for everyone, somebody got seriously lost and ended up with a movie for no one. It wasn't totally ruined though. I enjoyed it after all. Although, it was mostly by chuckling at bits I'm now thinking weren't actually supposed to be funny. Okay, so there were some good bits too, but I just don't understand this movie. In fact, We Bought a Zoo is one of the most senseless movies I've ever predicted with total accuracy. I can't seem to get a ... "handle" on it.