We Bought a Zoo is a movie about a family who literally buys and moves into a zoo. Is this just a fictional story in a movie? No, it is based on a real-life story about Benjamin Mee, a British writer, who bought the Dartmoor Zoo located in Devon, United Kingdom and successfully reopened it to the public. How did an ordinary writer and his family end up buying and moving into a zoo?
The Story of We Bought a Zoo
Benjamin Mee is a recently widowed man who still grieves over his wife’s death. When his son, Dylan, gets kicked out of school due to behavioral issues, he decides to make a fresh start by buying a new house. While searching for a new place, the Mees finds a perfect house but it comes with the condition that they have to buy a zoo that was closed to the public several years ago. He is reluctant to buy the house at first, but when he sees how happy his daughter Rosie is with the animals, he decides to move into the place. However, his adolescent son hates this idea and the trouble between him and Dylan gets worse.
There are a number of zoo staff members, including Kelly Foster, the head zookeeper, who are willing to help Benjamin start renovating the zoo to reopen it to the public. However, they have doubts as to Benjamin’s sincerity in working to reopen the zoo because he has no experience with the animals or zoos at all, and it does not make sense for such a person to move into a zoo all of a sudden. What is more, Benjamin soon faces a financial trouble as it costs over $100,000 to repair the zoo. When the zoo accountant, Rhonda Blair, finds out that Benjamin’s bank account is empty, she spreads gossip that he will soon sell the zoo and leave the place.
Just when Benjamin faces his hardest time, he discovers an investment account his wife has bequeathed to him, with instructions to use the money wisely while listening to his heart. Benjamin’s brother, Duncan, advises him to start over with the money, but Benjamin decides to use the money to repair the zoo. However, Dylan, unhappy about having to stay, confronts Benjamin and they have an intense argument. The next morning, they reconcile and resolve their misunderstandings.
Benjamin finally realizes that instead of trying to start over by forgetting his wife, he should accept that she will always be a part of him. In the end, he and the zoo workers manage to successfully reopen the zoo with numerous visitors.
What the Movie Wants to Tell You
The ultimate message that the movie tries to give is this: You cannot live without the experience of losing a loved one. Benjamin Mee was separated himself from his wife physically, but not psychologically, and this caused indescribable pain for him to lose a loved one. However, if you cannot overcome pain and are stuck in the past, you will not be able to see the happiness just before you in your present life. Although Benjamin still has not completely forgotten his wife towards the end of the movie, he decides to accept his wife’s death and that she will become a part of him, and he finds a new kind of happiness at his new home and with his new lover, Kelly.
The real beauty of this movie is in its touching dialogues between the characters. You may not expect to hear some meaningful lines that you can deeply empathize with, but these lines are what truly make the movie complete. Here are only few of them:
When Benjamin and Dylan sit together and reconcile for the first time after an intense argument the night before, Dylan talks about how Lily, Kelly’s cousin, whom he has a crush on, ignores him, which he does not understand. Benjamin gives him advice, saying, “You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally seconds of just embarrassing bravery, and I promise you, something great will come of it.” This line actually became the most famous line in the movie and also delivers the movie’s message.
When Kelly meets Benjamin for the first time and asks the question, “Why did you buy this place?” Benjamin oddly replies, “Why not?” The secret in this line is revealed towards the end of the movie where Benjamin takes his two kids to the restaurant where he met his wife for the first time to explain their first meeting to the children. Benjamin was walking on the street beside the restaurant before he saw his wife and when he saw her sitting in the restaurant, he instantly fell in love with her. He walked inside the restaurant and said to her, “Why would a beautiful woman like you talk to a stranger like me?” His wife then replied, “Why not?” The movie We Bought a Zoo talks all: humanism, love, family, courage and hope. How about cuddling up with your family on a couch to watch We Bought a Zoo together for this Christmas?
Interview with the Real Benjamin Mee
Q. Why did you buy the zoo?
MEE : We were not looking for a zoo like in the film. The reality in the book on which it is based is that we were looking for a large house for my mother to live in so she could live with one or more of her children and grandchildren, so that she did not have to be on her own in her old age. The house had 12 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms, and it had 7 tigers and 3 bears and a pack of wolves. We just laughed and thought, “That is insane.” As a family, we always loved animals. We made the big mistake of going to see it. That meant that we could see just how incredible the place was. It is a little jewel in the English countryside. You have English deciduous bluebells and lions. It is an amazing landscape with some gorgeous creatures. Then we realized that if we did not buy it, the next person in line was a property developer who would have turned it into a nursing home. About three-quarters of the animals would have been destroyed because there was just nowhere for them to go. Something inside the whole family just kind of clicked and we pulled out all of the stops and did what we had to do to make it happen. That process actually took 6 or 8 months as opposed to the couple of days it seemed to take Matt Damon in the film. It is still based on the truth.
Q. Your wife Katherine actually died after you bought the zoo and three months later, you reopened Dartmoor zoo. How did you manage to go through all this?
MEE : I felt some sort of catharsis while I was taking care of the animals which cannot live without our care. Thanks to them, I realized that life still goes on, regardless of how bad the situation is and that I had to face the reality and get over it. To me, the zoo was the best place for me to remove the pain and heal up.
Q. You are frequently invited to speak in front of the public. What message do you try to deliver to the people to give them hope?
MEE : I never give up when everyone says it is impossible. When you give up, a failure becomes a predetermined fact. However, if you do not give up and continue to strive, there might be a small opportunity. I say this to the people to encourage them and I feel very satisfied and happy.