A nice-guy widower dad named Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) decides he needs to uproot and refresh his life, partly for himself but especially for his kids, Dylan and Rosie (Colin Ford, Maggie Elizabeth), who are half-coping and half-shell-shocked by the recent death of their mom. They all need a sense of renewal and adventure, a feeling that they’re moving on. So Benjamin uses an inheritance from his dad to buy a rundown, privately-managed penal institution in Missouri that’s been threatened with foreclosure.

“We can make this jail into a better, happier place, and make ourselves better for it,” Benjamin tells his kids. “We can clean it up and apply fresh coats of paints and change — or at least try to change — the outlooks and attitudes of dozens of common felons and murderers and white-collar criminals. We can start group-therapy sessions and make them attend classes in painting and pottery and yoga, and introduce them to great literature and great theatre and cinema, and the blessings of the Bhagavad Gita and Taoism and the teachings of Baba Ram Dass and Alan Watts.

“Okay, some of the guards are a little weird and some have old-fashioned attitudes…one guy thinks he’s costarring in a 1930s Warner Bros. George Raft prison movie… but we can change that too,” he says. “And there’s this really cute guard manager lady (Scarlett Johansson) who’s tough-minded but hot, and we might wanna…you know, ahem…once the jail has been turned into a happier, healthier place and is running smoothly and profitably again.

“The bottom line is that if we make the prisoners into better, more spiritually open people they’ll eventually become more productive workers,” Benjamin concludes, “and our prisoners-for-hire program will become more profitable…and we’ll have a new extended family and a fresh start. It’ll be a good thing all around, trust me.”

Rosie is tickled and turned on. “We bought a jail!,” she exclaims from time to time. But it’s going to be a harder job that they realize at first, and the cost of turning the jail around will lead Benjamin to the precipice of financial ruin. But what’s life without a little struggle and uncertainty?

Substitute exotic animals for human prisoners and you’ve basically got Cameron Crowe‘s We Bought A Zoo. Because We Bought A Jail and We Bought A Zoo are about finding personal self-renewal and spiritual rebirth through the caring and feeding of inmates.

The difference is one of social necessity vs. childlike curiosity and ethical cluelessness. Human prisons are necessary to protect society from the predatory-criminal element and to attempt some kind of rehabilitation — they serve an unfortunate but legitimate function. Zoos serve no legitimate function at all. They’re almost entirely about satisfying pre-tweener curiosity about exotic beasts. There may be adults who visit zoos for whatever reason, but you’d have to be pretty clueless to buy a seasonal zoo pass.

One other distinction: zoo inmates are all doing life terms while most human prisoners are in for shorter stretches and are eligible for parole at regular intervals.