We Bought a Zoo is a movie made to make you feel good. There is no other way around that. It features nice performances, a nice score, stakes that are enough to keep you involved, but never to really put you in a tense place, and an overall sweetness that is enough to make your teeth fall out. It is certainly nothing I hold against the film, especially given that it is based on a true story, but the joyful optimism seen in this film can only take one so far, before the level of interest starts to fade. Still, We Bought a Zoo is perfectly acceptable for families to watch together and at least possesses a confidence in the acting and filmmaking to keep it ahead of other, similar family friendly features. It also helps that the Blu-ray is pretty fantastic
The film stars Matt Damon as pro journalist and grieving widower, Benjamin Mee. Benjamin (as he likes to be called), is having a tough time raising his two children, little Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and teenage Dylan (Colin Ford), in their Southern California hometown, given that everywhere he goes reminds him of his deceased wife. Dylan is having trouble adjusting as well, given his recent expulsion from school. This all leads to Benjamin quitting his job and deciding to movie somewhere else, somewhere in the countryside. After some shopping around, Benjamin eventually decides on a pretty expansive piece of property to sink his life savings and inheritance into. It has a large house, plenty of outdoors exposure…and is also a zoo.
Benjamin has decided to move Rosie, Dylan, and himself out to a struggling zoo, with intentions to bring it back up to code and reopen it. This was against the advice of his older brother, Duncan (Thomas Hayden Church), but Benjamin thinks it will do well for him and his children’s spirits. Helping out with this entire project are the remaining employees of the zoo; including Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), the most dedicated of employees and animal caretakers; Robin Jones (Patrick Fugit), the caretaker who comes with a monkey on his shoulder; Lily (Elle Fanning), the youngest employee who takes a liking to Dylan; And Peter MacCready (Angus McFadyen), the experienced zoo architect. In order to have everything work out, which includes having a handle on his family, his employees, and the 200 animals that need caring, Benjamin will need more than just money to get everything in order.
If there was an award for earnestness and precociousness, this movie would certainly be recognized. As evidenced by a quote I am using, which isn’t just repeated by me, the movie’s lightheartedness and sentimentality can be properly represented in the form of young Rosie. Her presence in this movie serves as a constant reminder that we are all here just to have a warm and loving time. You do not have comedic actor John Michael Higgins serving as the “villain” of the film because you want the audience to worry about Benjamin’s livelihood. But again, despite the adherence to a formula, it does come down the way writer/director Cameron Crowe manages to handle his characters, which does generally turn out well for the most part.
Matt Damon is completely solid in his role. This is not much of a surprise to me. Damon proves again and again that is he is pretty capable anywhere. Here he does a pretty great job at playing the central figure of this film, dealing with so many various matters. I think it works because you believe that this man wants to do the best that he can in order to please everyone, even in the face of dealing with his past tragedy. The scenes between him and his son are among the most important, especially the encounters late in the film and it is these moments of drama that are handled well enough without feeling too sentimental. I think the same can be said for the way he has to deal with some of the older animals within the zoo. With all of this, Damon does well at working in the same territory as Cusack or Cruise have in past Crowe films.
Benjamin Mee: 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.
Not quite as successful is the supporting cast, despite a few highlights. If the character of Rosie has all the precociousness she needs, then Scarlett Johansson certainly has all the earnestness. Given that she plays up her habitual need to do all that is right for these animals, it does not feel mannered, but there is a slight awkwardness in her chemistry with Damon, given the doe eyes she can’t seem to help but give him at many moments throughout. Thomas Hayden Church was a lot of fun here, playing a caring but not overbearing older brother and scoring a decent amount of laughs. McFadyen’s work as essentially the brashly poetic zookeeper was fun too. And Elle Fanning continues (after Somewhere and Super 8) to give affecting performances in films.
As far as the whole zoo angle is concerned, that was again a nice touch. This film is based on a true story, for whatever that is worth, but the concept felt enough like a novel one to not have me caring either way. I liked how the zoo was incorporated into this story. And staying in line with how things were incorporated into this story, Cameron Crowe has a way of writing dialogue that can sometimes stick out, but beyond some of Benjamin’s dialogue towards the beginning and end and Rosie as a character in general, it did not really stick out in a bad way. It is a Cameron Crowe film for sure, which is highlighted by the soundtrack (easily noted by those very familiar with the man) among other things, but in an even lighter way…and with a lot more animals.
If this was 2007, at a time when No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood were becoming big successes, it would be nice to have a refreshingly light film like We Bought a Zoo to serve as counterprogramming. However, as it stands, there actually are plenty of very accessible films currently in theaters to check out. And even without that context, it still feels more like a film that is trying to be really special as opposed to one that actually is. All of this and still I did actually like the film and would recommend it for families. Damon is as solid as ever and the genuinely sweet nature of the picture is nice to see mixed with some of Crowe’s filmmaking sensibilities. It may not have matched up to Crowe’s greater work, but it is a pleasant diversion.
This Blu-ray release from Fox really delivers in terms of its technical specs. Starting with the video presentation; the 1080p/AVC encoded transfer looks pretty fantastic. Given that this movie spends plenty of time outdoors, amidst a lot of colorful environments and creatures, I was really taken back by how well represented the film looks here. It is a great joy to see a film like this, which has warmth to it (both in characters and style), turn out so well on Blu-ray. The various backgrounds all look great throughout. The color levels all seem balanced. The various textures of the characters and environments all seem to register very well. It is a very good looking film that looks great on this disc, which really seems to have put the amount of space available to full use.
Again, this Blu-ray delivers just as well regarding the audio quality as it does with the video. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is pretty great, with a film that features a large amount of dialogue and various soundtrack choices. This is a Cameron Crowe film after all, so the soundtrack is one that anyone should already know will be a plus and fortunately, it comes through great here. When the talking and animal noises stop, hearing the score or audio selections is a nice benefit to the film and the quality of the disc. The balance throughout feels properly mixed and nothing ever feels overshadowed. It is another great aspect of this Blu-ray. I should also note (given the bold letters on the box, which highlight this) that the Blu-ray is equipped with a family-friendly audio track as well, which omits the few bits of bad language.
The Blu-ray shines in the special features department as well. You get basically everything you would want in terms of learning about the making of this film. Plus, all of the extras are presented in HD.
Audio Commentary with Director Cameron Crowe, Actor JB Smoove, and Editor Mark Livolsi – the strange thing is that JB Smoove is in the film for 5 minutes, but I love him on Curb Your Enthusiasm and his presence here is very much welcome. This is a strong commentary track, which provides plenty in terms of making-of notes, while also being very entertaining.
Deleted and Extended Scenes – Nearly 40 minutes of deleted footage here, as the film was originally 3 ½ hours, before Crowe managed to trim it down considerably.
Gag Reel- Standard bits of fun.
We Shot A Zoo – At over an hour, this behind-the-scenes documentary covers the production quite well.
Their Happy Is Too Loud – A lengthy featurette that spotlights Jonsi’s work to score the film.
The Real Mee – A featurette that covers the real life of Benjamin Mee and how he went about managing the zoo he bought.
Theatrical Trailer and Previews
DVD Copy of the Film
Digital Copy of the Film
I just wish the film was more than a really sweet distraction. That may sound kind of harsh, but it’s not. The film is what it is, but at least it has a strong cast and a talented filmmaker behind it. It is a sweet film for sure, but it is fun for families to enjoy. Fortunately, the Blu-ray is fantastic and will give anyone all that they need to know plenty about the film as a whole. Certainly worth checking out the extras, but beholding the great video/audio quality is worth a rental at least.