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We Bought a Zoo (2011)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 4/3/2012
All Ratings out of
Review by Mike Long, Posted on 4/8/2012
I've written before about how I pay much more attention to filmmakers than I do actors and I typically have fairly strong feelings about said writers, directors, and producers. One such artist is Cameron Crowe. Crowe has been making movies for over 20 years now, and he's had some hits and some critically-acclaimed movies, and yet, he's never made anything which just blew me away. Of course, I liked the writing in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, who didn't? But, as far as the films with Crowe has written and directed, I've been on the fence. I liked the main story in Say Anything, but hated the sup-plot with the father. Singles had some nice moments, but was too scattershot. Jerry Maguire did nothing for me and Vanilla Sky should have never existed, as Alejandro Amenabar's film is a classic. I really liked parts of Almost Famous and Elizabethtown, Crowe's only real flop, was actually pretty good. So, obviously, I didn't know what to expect from We Bought a Zoo.
Based on a true story, We Bought a Zoo introduces us to Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a reporter who has traveled the world seeking adventure. However, after his wife dies, Benjamin feels lost. His son, Dylan (Colin Ford), is clearly depressed and acts out in school, while his daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), tries to remain upbeat. When Dylan gets expelled, Benjamin decides that it's time for a change and looks for a new house, settling on an old house which sits on a tract of land, which just happens to be a zoo. The run-down zoo isn't open to the public, but the animals still live there. Despite the fact that his brother, Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), tells him that he's crazy, Benjamin goes through with it and suddenly finds himself in charge of a staff, including Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), Robin (Patrick Fugit) and MacCready (Angus Macfadyen). Benjamin decides that he wants to re-open the zoo and pours all of his money into it. While Rosie loves the idea, Dylan grows more distant. Benjamin finds himself attempting to run a risky investment while trying to keep his family together.
Well, congratulations Cameron Crowe, you finally made a movie which got to me. Based on the advertisements for We Bought a Zoo, I'd expected the movie to be a sort of comedy of errors, like a more seriousMr. Popper's Penguins -- family buys a house, learns that a zoo is attached, hilarity ensues. Boy, did the trailers and commercials steer me wrong on this one! We Bought a Zoo is a very, very emotional drama which has comedic overtones. While the re-vamping of the zoo is the driving force behind the story, much of the movie is really about Benjamin's grief and his inability to get over the death of this wife. This is a man who was enamored with his spouse and while he hasn't given up, he finds it difficult at times to move forward without her in his life. These feelings are exacerbated by the behavior of his children, especially Dylan. Benjamin wants so badly to see Rosie be happy while he's struggling to get a handle on what he can do to help Dylan adjust. Then, Benjamin finds himself saddled with his new zoo family and their unique personalities.
With this story and these characters, Crowe has done the seemingly impossible -- he delivers moving drama which never becomes sappy or melodramatic. While not exactly a "slice of life" movie, We Bought a Zoo does focus on the characters and their situations, at times shying away from the bigger picture that they are trying to open a zoo. This actually works well for the movie. Yes, there are plenty of scenes where Benjamin and the staff must deal with the financial and logistical strains which come with their endeavor, but more often than not, the movie is more interested in getting to know the characters. Not everyone becomes as three-dimensional as we would have liked, most notably Robin, but the emphasis on the characters allows us to be drawn into their stories and emotions. Therefore, Benjamin's feelings about his wife come across as very genuine and moving. Even more importantly, he never relies on the animals for strong feelings. Sure, there are some subplots with animals in need, and one is honestly sad, but these feel like necessary parts of the story and not emotional hijacking.
We Bought a Zoo does run a little long and again, some things aren't painted as clearly as we would have liked, but overall Crowe has made a powerful movie which sneaks up on you. More than just a story of a man who decides to open a zoo, this is the tale of a man who makes a personal journey out of his grief. Damon is excellent here and we share the lump in his throat when Benjamin talks about his wife. Some may find it a bit too sad, but I really enjoyed We Bought a Zoo. I still don't consider myself a fan of Cameron Crowe (and this doesn't excuse Vanilla Sky), but he's gained significant ground in my book.
We Bought a Zoo taught me that tigers won't die of natural causes on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 3.8 Mbps. The image is very sharp and clear, showing no obvious grain and no defects from the source material. The colors look very good, most notably reds and greens, and the image is never overly dark or bright. The level of detail is very good here, as we can easily make out textures on objects. The depth is good as well, as the actors are separate from the backgrounds. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 25 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects are very good, as the movie offers many opportunities for the track to highlight sounds coming from off-screen, such as animal roars. These sounds are nicely detailed and the speaker placement is good. The surround sound effects work as well, most notably during the finale and a rainstorm. A key scene with an agitated animal provides good subwoofer effects.
The We Bought a Zoo Blu-ray Disc contains several extras. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Cameron Crow, actor JB Smoove, and Editor Mark Livolsi. The Disc contains twenty DELETED & EXTENDED SCENES which run about 37 minutes. The bulk of these are simply longer versions of scenes from the finished movie. There is an interesting new scene which shows a group of volunteers coming to help with the repairs. I didn't like the scene which showed Rhonda hitting on Benjamin. Thomas Haden Church does have a great line in one new scene. There is a 7-minute GAG REEL which surprisingly doesn't contain much animal action. "We Shot a Zoo" is a 76-minute making-of featurette which is split into five parts -- "Intro/Benjamin", "We Build a Zoo", "Rehearsal/Filming", "It's a Zoo!", and "Inspiration/That's a Wrap". This starts with the true story of the real Benjamin Mee and then moves through the creation and filming of the movie. We get a lot of on-set footage here and comments from the filmmakers and cast. "Their Happy is Too Loud" (17 minutes) focuses on Composer Jonsi and Cameron Crowe putting together the score for the film. "The Real Mee" (29 minutes) is essentially a mini-documentary which tells the real story behind the movie, containing lots of footage of the animals there. The Disc offers a "Photo Gallery" by Still Photographer Neal Preston. The final extra is the THEATRICAL TRAILER for the film.
Review Copyright 2012 by Mike Long