I cannot imagine losing my wife to disease or death. Even though I trust in the hope found in Christ and His resurrection, I’d be an emotional wreck of a person. Having two kids who would also feel the loss of their mom would be awful. So it’s impressive to me that filmmaker Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire) takes a real-life story about a widower who purchases a zoo and makes it so…well..cute.
We Bought A Zoo simply radiates cute. There are animals. There is Matt Damon. There is the soundtrack by Jonsi (who made one of my favorite albums of the past 5 years). There is seven-year-old Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who is incredibly charming and sweet to watch on screen. At least the animals don’t talk, or else the cuteness might become too much.
The widower, Benjamin Mee (Damon), is struggling to cope with the loss of his wife. Benjamin is a successful writer and thrill-seeker, whose adventures have spanned the globe. This tragedy has him planted at home to care for the children and his own heartache. His two kids aren’t doing great either, with 14-year-old Dylan getting expelled from school for his moodiness and rebellion. They need a change, so Benjamin decides to change the scenery. They find a beautiful new home in the California countryside, with only one catch–it’s a zoo. There are lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) and peacocks and monkeys and snakes, and all sorts of other wild beasts.
The rest of the film follows Benjamin and company as they navigate both the restoration of a zoo and their own hearts as they recover from the loss of a wife and mother. There is a motley crew of zoo workers who have stayed to help restore the zoo to its former glory, including Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), who serves as both an advocate for the zoo and a love interest to Benjamin. It’s a great little family film that treads the line between being saccharine and sincere, with an authenticity that makes it feel a bit more mature than films in a similar vein. It could have gone the route of being dark and/or explicit, or the opposite path of schmaltzy cornball antics (Ben Stiller was a possible casting choice for the role of Benjamin, which would have changed the entire tone of the film). The story feels paradoxically fresh and conventional; it is easily accessible and quickly enjoyed, but has some more depth to it than the average family flick.
Is there room in one’s theology for cuteness? Can God be cute? Our world is one broken by sin and pain, and in desperate need of redemption. Most cuteness, therefore, feels inauthentic and mawkish; we want to believe that life works this way, but alas, it doesn’t. Cuteness doesn’t match what we see on the news or read on the Internet (unless we’re looking at memes about kittens). Yet it still does exist; “cute” can be real, too. Case in point: my four-month-old daughter has recently learned how to smile and laugh. She giggles at me when I stick my tongue out at her, and will squirm with smiles when her mother enters the room. There is an innocence with her that feels…well…cute. Her smiles are without pretense or agenda; she smiles simply because she can, because she is happy, because there is beauty in the world for her to experience. I know that sin will distort the imago dei present in her, but right now it shines through with little blemish. My daughter is cute and I love her like crazy. We Bought A Zoo is cute, too. Maybe we need a bit more cute in our lives.
We Bought A Zoo also explores the themes of adventure and courage. Benjamin’s shares his life mantra with Dylan at a particularly poignant moment of reconciliation in the film:
You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.
It’s not a bad way to live, actually. Embracing risk and taking steps of faith allows us to live into the story that God is telling through our lives, becoming a part of the greater Story that He is authoring throughout history. Sitting around a watching television for 20+ hours a week is a bad story. Cheating on your taxes is a bad story. Bailing on your marriage is a bad story. Ignoring your children is a bad story. Adopting a child out of love; remaining faithful to your spouse in the midst of adversity; moving to an impoverished nation to serve in an orphanage; mentoring a child; buying a zoo with your family: these are good stories. They’re the ones that get turned into movies. Or at least, they should.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1389137/