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A Tale of 2 Animal Movies: War Horse and We Bought a Zoo

Julie Samrick
Kid Focused

War Horse Contrasts Grim Realities of War With the Brightness of Innocent Children and We Bought A Zoo is Heavy on Drama, Short on Animals

War Horse

Just at the brink of World War I, an English farm boy is given the opportunity to break in the colt whose birth he witnessed.  A steely bond between the two ensues, in the same classic vein as the Black Stallion and young Alec, or E.T. and Elliot. 

Told from the point of view of Joey, the horse, War Horse is an epic saga that spans the duration of the Great War in Europe.  The bright spots of kindnesses and the love of the innocent young people who cross paths with Joey buoy the desperation and sadness of the time.

This movie serves as a history lesson too.  It shows just how essential horses were in the early 20th century.  During wartime, they were the cavalry's chief mode of transportation (approximately 1 million horses were killed during World War I.)  They were important to businesses and farmers back home, too.  In War Horse, it is scoffed at when a thoroughbred like Joey is bought to be a plough horse to save the family's farm. A young soldier then barters for him to use in combat.  We see Joey change hands multiple times, a horse symbolizing a vital commodity of the time.

Horses like Joey were a staple of the bravado on the front lines, but this movie shows how a loved pet can also transform young lives. It was amazing to see the cavalry on horseback charging full speed ahead, swords straight out, rushing towards the enemy without restraint.  The various children who love Joey show bravery in their own lives too.  He helps one boy become a responsible man; a girl forgets her illness for a while; a young soldier takes time out to help others because of Joey. These young people may face poverty, loneliness or disease, yet Joey is there to uplift them.

The majestic music and attention to detail also make this movie one of the best I've seen in a long time. 

I would recommend War Horse for children 10 and older.  It is PG-13 for intense war scenes, but I think they are done tastefully.  There are loud artillery booms, which might scare young kids, and several deaths (mostly insinuations and no blood), but I do think the movie shouldn't be missed for its rich lessons, morals and heart. 

We Bought a Zoo

Of all the titles We Bought A Zoo could have had, the film is not really about a zoo, or the light-hearted, childlike associations that come with one, but the people and the heavy problems that inhabit it.

A dilapidated zoo serves as the backdrop for Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) and his two young kids as they attempt to piece their lives back together 6 months after the death of their wife and mother.

The cast of humans is a menagerie of colorful characters, to be sure.  I particularly enjoyed newcomer Maggie Elizabeth Jones, who plays 7-year-old Rosie Mee, as well as Elle Fanning as Lily, the homeschooled farm girl who is a ray of sunshine in Benjamin's angst-ridden son's otherwise dark life.  Both of these girls positively light up the screen.

The rare visits with the zoo animals, like a 750-pound grizzly bear named Buster, and the details about them, aren't spotlighted enough.  I enjoyed learning new animal facts, like the guttural sound tigers make is called "chuffing," but I wanted even more.  Just as the title misleads, the dealings with animals are the few times We Bought a Zoo could be thought of as a kids' film.

Viewers mostly get insight into Benjamin's mourning and his kids' failure to thrive...complicated stuff.  Early on, Benjamin's brother gives a crude speech about how his lonely, widowed brother needs to find company, and not of the 4-legged kind.

When Benjamin blurts out to his teenage son, "We have a little 7-year-old girl in this house who still believes the Easter Bunny is real!"  I was glad my older children missed seeing this "kids' movie" with me.  Thank goodness it went right over my 3-year-old's head, who later said the movie was "boring."

It is an interesting movie, with a solid premise as I kept reminding myself it's actually based on a true story.  But don't be fooled, it's not a young kids' movie, or even a comedy for that matter.  It is rated PG, but I think a PG-13 rating would be more fitting.

In the end, I'd skip taking elementary school-aged kids to see We Bought a Zoo unless they've lost a significant person in their life.  In that case, it might be a good way to talk about grief and loss. Unless that's the case, go see it with other adults or wait for it to come out on video.

Julie Samrick is a stay-at-home mom of 4 young kids and the founder of Kid Focused, a site devoted to children and family issues.  Subscribe to the free Kid Focused newsletter delivered weekly to your inbox.  Permission granted for use on 

Tags: Movie Review, Parenting, PG Rated, PG-13 Rated
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