A Deeper Look at We Bought a Zoo!

The Story Line.


Benjamin Mee, adventurer and writer, loses his wife to cancer when his children are young, Dylan, 14, and Rosie, 7. Six months later, Dylan is expelled from school because he stole some money. At the same time, Mee quits his job as a newspaper feature writer; online writing is not the kind he wants to do and for the umpteenth time, Rosie is awakened because of loud partiers outside her bedroom window. Whew!! Mee decides they’ll move.


So Benjamin and Rosie start looking for another house; Mee wants something with rolling hills and space. Since that’s hard to find in the city (San Diego), they get pretty discouraged. But then, they happen on this great place in the country with a house they love and 18 acres of rolling hills. The only problem is: It’s a Zoo!


Seeing Rosie’s joy with the peacocks and being the responsible father he is, Benjamin buys the zoo. He wants to give his kids a life that has some meaning.


The place hasn’t been open for the past two years, so many of the buildings and enclosures need repairing or rebuilding. And, on top of that, Benjamin knows nothing about animals and has no idea what it will cost him to bring his zoo up to the federal government’s regulations. But, he really is an adventurer. When we watch just the first five or six minutes of the movie we realize how true that is.


He’s confident about getting the zoo in operating condition and opening on July 7th. Forty-nine different species live there and many of them are endangered, so Benjamin and his small staff get moving.


Long story short: the zoo does open, even though just barely, on 7/7/7, the 7th day of July, 2007. They get a terrific crowd of people who celebrate that the zoo is open again, who bring money in and insure that the zoo can keep operating. It’s not only open and operating but also growing to this day.



Now, For the Guts of the Movie.


There are quite a few sub-themes. They’re well integrated into the main story and the whole thing just comes together in a very appealing way.


(1) There’s a young-love story going on between Dylan and Lily that is charming because it’s subtle. She so likes him and he’s so oblivious to it, that is, until she begins avoiding him. Without realizing it, Dylan hurt her feelings.


Lily had heard that Benjamin was selling the zoo because he ran out of money and so Dylan would be moving. Dylan’s ecstatic. Obviously, she’s hurt so she ignores him, he’s puzzled. He realizes he misses her. Does this situation get resolved? I hope you’ll watch the movie and see.


(2) Benjamin’s only sibling can’t believe his younger brother would be foolish enough to risk their dad’s inheritance money on a broken-down zoo. He advises Benjamin to give it up, almost right up until the end. But, he clearly loves his brother.


How do they work it out? Watch the movie and see; their relationship is really heart-warming.


(3) It’s clear that when Benjamin Mee sets his mind to an adventure, he sees it through. Here, he throws himself into the physical work that’s needed. He respects his small staff, their knowledge and advice; he’s definitely a team player. And. he spends a ton of money.


(4) I so much enjoyed seeing Benjamin fall in love with the animals, especially Spar, their 17-year-old tiger, played by Katie, and Buster, the 1200 pound North American Grizzly, played by Bart. He has such a respect for these animals and emotionally connects with them.


In fact, the connection with one of the animals is so strong that Benjamin is blind to the animal’s suffering. He finally realizes it’s because he doesn’t want to face death again so soon after losing his wife. He eventually consents to ending the animal’s pain.


If you want to know which animal and what happens, go see the movie; it’s worth the time and money, especially if you’re an animal person.


(5) The relationships between Benjamin and each of his two children are very different. Cameron Crowe, writer-director, did a great job writing something real that ordinary parents can relate to. Rosie is especially mature and quite a partner, as much as a seven-year-old can be. Their relationship has a loving softness to it.


Dylan, on the other hand, is defensive; he misses his mom terribly. He shows his depression by curling up with his drawing pad and pen and staying away from everyone. Dylan doesn’t feel understood by his dad; he’s pretty sure Benjamin doesn’t like him.


On the other hand, Benjamin does his best, trying to give Dylan time to come out of his grief over his mother’s death. But gradually, Benjamin’s patience wears out.


How does it come out? I hope you’ll watch the movie. If you like seeing encouraging, hopeful relationships, you’ll like this movie.


(6) Through flashbacks we get to see tender moments Benjamin and the two kids had with his wife, their mother. Even though he tries to let her go, it’s very hard for him.


More than any words I could write, Benjamin Mee’s own words state so truly what it feels like to lose someone you love. After the death, you must go on, but it’s a moment-to-moment struggle.


“I thought that if I came out here the hurting would stop. But, Katherine’s here, too. Back home everything reminded me of her. She loved red kites and blueberry pop-tarts. If only I could talk to her about getting over her, it would be good. What I’ve figured out, though, is that when you love somebody that much, that hard, that long, you can never get away from them, no matter where you go. That kind of love only comes once in a lifetime. I just can’t get a handle on it. I cannot let go.”


(7) There’s an undercurrent of respect and growing affection between Benjamin and his head trainer, Kelly.


(8) There’s an ongoing anxiety about whether there will be enough money to actually repair and open the zoo. The dollar amount that’s needed is never expressed outright in the movie, but it must have been a tremendous amount when you see all of the work that had to be done to open. And, Benjamin Mee’s brother, the accountant, keeps advising the conservative route of abandoning, selling, or somehow getting rid of the zoo.


As the viewer, we’re pretty sure it’ll come out all right but still there’s that tension.


Image Courtesy of http://thisisdevon.co.uk

This screenplay and movie are based on the real life story of Benjamin Mee. He wrote the book, We Bought a Zoo about him and his family’s adventure into the animal/zoo world.


Over time, the zoo, named Dartmoor Zoological Park, has become a world renowned research facility where Mee and others continue to study animal intelligence. It has won many awards and the methods used to study animals are admired around the world.


Benjamin Mee, his mother and his two children still live at the zoo.


www.benmee.me gives a concise biography of Benjamin. It tells us a bit more about Mee’s life situations before he bought the zoo. The website also includes a four-part television program about his story which aired on BBC1 after the book became a bestseller. The website also offers both of the books he has written: We Bought a Zoo and The Call of DIY, a booklet of practical wisdom.



Some Added Extras.


I love it when there’s a documentary section about a film. I think the one that comes with this movie is especially fascinating, if you like animals, because you get to see them with their trainers when they aren’t “acting.” It was a real treat. Enjoy!!


My own impression: It was amazing to see the animals up close. They’re so beautiful and majestic; their markings look perfect. They each have very different looks and habits, all of which are intriguing. All of the animals respond to human touch and a loving human voice.


Matt Damon set the mood for the extras with his comments. He mentioned that working with the animals was not as intimidating as he expected it to be because they were well trained and well looked after. Because all of the actors deferred to the animals and their trainers, things went smoothly. They never had a situation where bullhorns were going off and the handlers were screaming, “I’m not okay with this; I’m not okay with this.”


Especially gorgeous are Felix, the lion and the three tigers. Felix, the lion, is pure sweetheart, says Mark Forbes, his trainer. And, if you watch Felix who is behind Mark in one scene, Felix loves to rub against the men. Eric makes the point that unless Felix is allowed to greet every handler and get some attention, he won’t work.


He commented that Felix is more like a dog than a predator. He smiled in envy when he said that Felix really has the life: he has his own chauffeur, his own chefs and his own housekeeping and all he has to do is perform every once in a while on camera. He is truly The King.


Both Elle Fanning, who plays Lily, and Patrick Fugit, who plays Robin. said they got scared when they could see the three tigers looking at little Maggie, who played Rosie, as their next meal. Patrick says: “They’re FRIGHTENING. Tigers stalk and prey; they can come up to within six feet of you and you’d never know that.”


I think it’s so interesting the way the trainers talk about their animals as people. Katie is the tiger with the most depth, says Eric Weld, one of the cat trainers. So, she was chosen to play Spar in the movie. She’s the premier actress; she’s like, “Okay, call me when you’re ready.” Her trainer also said that he’s pretty sure Katie knows the words: “action and cut.” “Kinda scary when a predator knows your language but, hey, it’s part of the job.”


Then we see Doug Seus and Scott Smith, his assistant with the bears. When asked, Colin Ford, who plays Dylan Mee, says the bear’s the scariest. This kid is very charismatic, charming, has an engaging smile and clearly is enjoying his job, even though he thinks the bear is really scary because it’s so huge.


There are two bears: Bart and Tank, one 1200 pounds and the other 800 pounds, both about nine feet tall. We get to see the trainers encourage Bart to roar, to wave his paw, to turn his head. Doug Seus, his trainer, says that these kinds of movements indicate “character.” I ask you: “Who would have thought?


Tank and Bart are both grizzly bears like the ones In Yellowstone National Park. And, believe it or not, they respond really well to Doug saying “GOOD BOY,” “GOOD BOY.” In other words, the bears respond to a strong positive emotional reward. I ask: “Don’t we all need that?”


The head trainer says that the animals love the attention, they love the work, and even the retired animals are the ones at the gate in the mornings wanting to go to work.


The Music by Jonsi

Cameron Crowe

Screenwriter, Producer, Director



Warm wishes until next time,




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