We Bought a Zoo is an American family film made in 2011 that is an adaptation of a novel with the same title by Benjamin Mee published in 2008. The book is based on a true story about the life of Benjamin Mee and his family during the time when he bought, renovated and re-opened the Dartmoor Wildlife Park, UK. The film adapted this story – but moved it to the USA, and the professional details of zoo-life were pushed into the background while characters’ features were brought to the front. While the book ensures some interesting moments for both zoo professionals and outsiders about the renovation of a zoo, the film makes an easy pastime.
First, some words about the book. Benjamin Mee wrote the book in a very readable style – well, of course, as he is basically a journalist – so it is easy to read for everyone. Maybe it is daring to compare it to Gerald Durrell’s books, but Mee too writes about the professional aspects (e.g. about animal species, zoo management, etc.) in simple style spiced with humour. Moreover, a family tragedy is also present with the death of his wife and his children’s mother, so the reader can feel oneself even closer to the family.
The film adapts the story of Mee, his family and their zoo, but while some basic parts are the same in the book and the film, many particulars are different. One of the main differences is location of the zoo, and while the zoo’s name is Dartmoor Zoological Park (UK) in the book, it is called Rosemoor Wildlife Park (US) in the film. The disagreements between the characters are also stronger in the film, for example between Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) and his teenage son, Dylan (Colin Ford). There are also strong disagreements between the zoo’s staff and Walter Ferris, the excessively strict zoo inspector (John Michael Higgins). Opposition between Benjamin and the zoo’s staff – represented most of the times by Kelly Foster, the lead-zookeeper (Scarlett Johansson) – induce many humorous events, but also some serious moments. In my view these events (both funny and serious) are present in all zoos where a new director or owner comes from the “outside”. In contrast with the book two new love stories evolve in the film, from which the filmmakers probably expected to make the film more popular with the public. My opinion is that these give the film a cheesy feel.
It is a curiosity that the “original” Benjamin Mee and his children also appear in the film: they are among the first visitors of the re-opened Rosemoor Wildlife Park.
The film generally received positive reviews. The Rotten Tomatoes rated it 66%, and considered Matt Damon’s central character sympathetic. The Chicago Sun-Times and The Telegraph also praised the performance of Matt Damon in the film. The soundtracks were composed by the Icelandic musician Jónsi from the band Sigus Rós, who received a BMI Film Music Award in 2012 for the soundtrack of this film. The premier of the film was on the 23rd of December 2011, the running time is 124 minutes. The budget was 50 million USD and the worldwide total income was 113 million USD.
About the Dartmoor Zoological Park
Dartmoor Wildlife Park was opened on the 29th of June 1968 by Ellis Daw. The zoo lies on a 13 ha (33 acre) area in Sparkwell, in the county of Devon, South West of England. The zoo was closed for the public on the 23rdof April 2006 after an animal protection organization regularly attacked Ellis Daw for the alleged poor living condition of the animals. Benjamin Mee and his family bought the zoo in August 2006. After renovation works Dartmoor Zoological Park opened again to the public on the 7th of July 2007. The zoo became a member of BIAZA (the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums) in 2011. The zoo is also a member of Species360 and uses ZIMS (the Zoological Information Management System) for the management of its animal collection. It has approximately 70 animal species in a diverse collection. The annual visitor’s number of the zoo was approx. 80,000 in 2016.