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Feature


Field reporter Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) loses his wife to brain cancer, and finds himself a busy single father. When his 14-year-old son, Dylan (Colin Ford), who has unhappily retreated into angst and dark, bloody artwork, is expelled from school for general moodiness, Benjamin is desperate to start over, and begins looking for a new house. He journeys out with his adorable 7-year-old daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), to find a new home, and discovers an ideal country house. The only catch – it’s attached to a dying zoo, and the care of the animals is a stipulation of the lease. Initially reluctant to renovate an entire zoo and all of its animals, Rosie’s delight gets the better of him, and be buys the zoo (hence the title) much to the chagrin of Dylan. Soon the Mee’s are introduced to the zoo’s skeleton staff, led by head keeper, Kelly (Scarlett Johansson).

We Bought a Zoo
God I hate Cameron Crowe movies. Well, except for Almost Famous, of course, which is one of my favorite films of the last decade. Oh, and his documentary Pearl Jam 20, that was pretty great too. I forgot he did that one. But these glimmering and gorgeous exceptions to the rule notwithstanding, Crowe (who seems every inch of a great guy, by the way, I’d honestly love to meet him in real life) makes bad movies for people looking for an easy fix of feel-good sentimentality. He makes movies I want to punch in the face. We Bought a Zoo is exactly the kind of cutsie-pie thing people love him for. The only thing that makes this movie different is that it doesn’t feature the light R/hard PG-13 theme and language ‘edge’, and even more, sigh, whimsy. Crowe does dialogue-based quirk well, and probably always will, but outside of some of Vanilla Sky’s more impressive images, he’s not know for his visual strengths, and I imagine a Disney de jure type director tackling this material in an alternate universe. Crowe doesn’t step outside his box here, and I have to admit his sentimental treatment is actually preferable to this hypothetically madcap version. The director’s penchant for moving a generally go-nowhere story along quickly though subtle montage keeps the movie on its toes (credit is clearly due to editor Mark Livolsi), and ensures that the generally episodic nature of the narrative is never a problem, though there is a prevailing sense of missing footage, especially in terms of secondary character development. He probably should’ve included the empty threat of bad weather on the cutting room floor instead.

I constantly resented the emotional manipulation, especially because so much of it doesn’t work, but I also can’t really fault Crowe for sticking to the things he knows best. Both Crowe’s and the family film’s formulas are substantial parts of the narrative foundation. There’s a cute younger kid that doles out wisdom beyond her age, a troubled older kid that is really just a misunderstood artist type, a too pretty to be true blooming strong female love interest, a supporting cast of misfits that would probably be band members in any other Crowe film. Benjamin fills Crowe’s usual impossibly, perfectly loveable male lead spot, a spot I’m sure he dreams he occupies in real life. The only thing missing is his patented ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’ (a term coined by Onion film critic Nathan Rabin after seeing Kirsten Dunst in Crowe’s Elizabethtown), though attributes of the MPDG are divided between Johansson and Fanning, meaning even having a trope named after one of his creations Crowe hasn’t really grown. In the film’s defense, these formulaic people are largely relatable and likeable, some of the jokes are actually quite funny (usually those given a post punch line punch line), and occasionally an emotional swell actually hits the mark (usually those pertaining to the awkward metaphor that is the zoo’s animals, rather than the more truthful human interactions).

We Bought a Zoo

Video


Crowe and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto go for a generally natural look with We Bought a Zoo, featuring soft, warm lighting, and vibrant colours, and this 1080p Blu-ray transfer does not disappoint in bringing their lush world to life. On the less natural side the film appears to take place in a world perpetually lit by a magic hour sun. The general colour scheme is relatively consistent. Skin tones are a bit orange, eyes are a bit teal, but this isn’t a case of O&T overload, in fact, candy yellow and forest green are the most common hues, along with blood red highlights, and blue and brown wardrobe elements. Details are crisp despite the consistent use of shallow focus and soft contrast levels. The transfer is sharpest when Crowe is dealing in close-up, where the complex patterns and textures of clothing are crystal clear, and in the zoo’s glorious jungle backgrounds, where similar shades and elements still stand apart from one another. In most cases, colours are well maintained and the contrasting elements well separated without sharpening effects or digital artefacts. Dark shots features a hint of banding in some of the background hues, a bit more grain, and a hint of edge enhancement, but not at the risk of some rich black levels. There might be edge enhancement on the brighter daylight shots too, but everyone is so consistently haloed by magic hour sunlight.

Audio


Cameron Crowe films are usually about the dialogue and his pop music soundtrack choices, and this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix follows suit, creating a relatively basic, but entirely clear soundscape. The animals themselves offer a sizable degree of aural stimulation with their growls and cries, but generally I’m left a bit disappointed by exactly how much of the zoo sound comes from the center channel. The stereo and surround channels are utilized pretty effectively for directional elements, like a door opening stage right, a car moving in from the rear channels, or a hissing snake slithering across the screen. Vehicle sounds and lion roars get a solid LFE representation too. But it’s the music that gets the biggest swell of volume from every channel, and these are likely the elements that a more compressed track would have trouble with. The rock selections are made up of good songs, but critically I’d say Cameron’s a bit off his game, and is sounding a bit like a parody of himself here. Icelandic musician Jon Por Birgisson’s score adds a surreal quality to some of the more touching moments, and sounds both warm and punchy (when required) on this track.

We Bought a Zoo

Extras


The extras begin with a commentary track featuring writer/director Cameron Crowe, actor/comedian JB Smoove and editor Mark Livolsi. I don’t like most of his films, but I’ve found I always enjoy interviews and commentaries with Crowe. He’s warm and personable, and works well with others. For his Almost Famous track he brought his real life mother on board, and here he utilizes the always engaging and amusing Smoove as a ‘secret weapon’, and records his reaction as he watches the completed film for the first time. The only problem with this is that Smoove is a little too busy watching the movie to be all that funny, and he doesn’t mix as well as anticipated with the more factoid-driven talk from Crowe and Livolsi. This track is a great idea, but the execution just isn’t there to make it a must listen for anyone outside of the film’s most ardent fans.

Next up is We Shot a Zoo (1:15:50, HD), a particularly artistically crafted five part behind the scenes documentary. Things start in fall of 2006 with the real Benjamin Mee (who is British), and discussion of the Mee family history. There’s a sizable amount of period footage from a BBC documentary on Mee’s zoo in this early section, which also features his wife Katherine Mee, who was alive when they initially purchased the zoo. Crowe’s narration professes a love for the story, and a need to tell it, which is funny, because he sort of changed all the details. From here things get a little more ‘tradition behind the scenes documentary’, beginning with the 2010 location scout and set building, featuring footage from the set, and interviews with production designer Clay Griffith, Greenfield Ranch manager Gary Robertson, location manager Chris Baugh, greens designer Richard Bell, art director Domenic Silvestri, producer Julie Yorn, and construction coordinator Michael Villarino. This is easily the blandest part of the story. The rehearsal process is a bit more interesting, featuring the cast on the new set walking through the film. This section includes brief interviews with actors Thomas Haden Church, Patrick Fugit, Colin Ford, JB Smoove, Elle Fanning, Angus Macfadyen, Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Scarlett Johansson, Carla Gallo, John Michael Higgins and Matt Damon. The filming section is a mix of fly-on-the-wall footage interviews with the cast, script supervisor Anna Maria Quintana, still photographer Neal Prestin, animal coordinator Mark Forbes, animal trainers Eric Weld, Jeff Lee, Alison Smith, Erin Shelley, David Sousa, and Doug and Lynne Seus, and previously interviewed crewmembers. Things are wrapped up with final thoughts and footage from the last day of filming, where the real Mee family had a cameo.

We Bought a Zoo
The disc also features Their Happy is Too Loud (17:20, HD), a look at the recording of the recording and mixing the film’s musical soundtrack with Crowe, composer Jon Por Birgisson and musical producer Alex Somers, The Real Mee (28:40), a touching look at the real story and real zoo, as told by the real Mee family and zoo staff (not surprisingly the real story is more interesting and even theatrical than Crowe’s film), 20 deleted/extended scenes (38:30, HD), a blooper reel (7:00, HD), a photo gallery, and trailers.

We Bought a Zoo

Overall


We Bought a Zoo was specifically what I was expecting from a Cameron Crowe directed family film. I didn’t like it very much, but find it well paced and buoyant without being too manipulative. Viewers that enjoyed Say Anything and Jerry McGuire will probably enjoy this, and their kids will probably enjoy it as well. Despite my distrust of the sentiment, I do admit Crowe treats death with the finality it deserves, which is commendable in a children’s film (though in reality, Katherine Mee died after the family purchased the zoo, which makes a more dramatic and melancholy end for the film). The sound and image quality are both quite good, and the extras features a plethora of goodies, including commentary, a feature length making-of documentary, and a lot more.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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