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Blu-ray Review: We Bought a Zoo

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Every so often I get to see a movie that manages to defy logic, even sometimes its own internal logic, but which is so good-natured that it manages to get by nonetheless.  I actually regularly feel that way about Cameron Crowe films, and his latest, We Bought a Zoo, is no different.

Sort of based on a true story, We Bought a Zoo stars Matt Damon as a recently widowed father, Benjamin Mee.  When nothing else is working in Benjamin’s life, he picks up his two kids and buys an old rundown zoo in the middle of nowhere.  Predictably, he faces challenges getting the place up and running once more as well as with helping his son, Dylan (Colin Ford), get past the recent death of Dylan’s mother.  Benjamin’s other child, a daughter named Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones), is on a far more even keel than either her father or brother and really exists just so that Damon can have cute to interact with.

As for the zoo workers’ side of things, they’re led by Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), who seems to mainly be there so Damon can have someone attractive to interact with.  There isn’t a moment from the first time Kelly appears in the film that the audience doesn’t know that she and Mee will get together by the end.  Crowe and company, however, wait so long to bring them together that you keep knowing that there is more to the film even when it looks like things are winding down. 

Acknowledging these problems however, doesn’t really tell the full story of the film.  I have certainly complained about films in the past where the end (and virtually every scene/complication) are obvious from the outset, and this is one of those films, but it succeeds anyway.  Why?  Probably because Damon, Johansson, and everyone else are so earnest and so endearing that they make it work.  There really is little other way to put it – Damon, Johansson, and Jones are just great to watch together on screen. 

We Bought a Zoo is a feel good, light-hearted romp.  Even the would-be evil federal inspector comes off as a lovable goof in the hands of John Michael Higgins.  At every turn, Cameron Crowe has opted to keep a story that could have become maudlin, breezy.  Think of it as akin to the scene in Jerry Maguire (another Cameron Crowe film) where Maguire is fired and leaves the office.  That could become a dark, horrible moment, but Crowe and Tom Cruise handle it in such a way that one winds up laughing at it as much as feeling sad for Maguire.

This film isn’t as good as Jerry Maguire.  That is, it isn’t as good as Jerry Maguire if you’re not one of the people who absolutely hates the final scene between Cruise and Renee Zellwegger.  If you’re against that scene, you may just like We Bought a Zoo more – it fails to hit the comedic highs of Jerry Maguire, but also never gets quite as emotional either.  It is just a small, fun, lovable little film.

The Blu-ray release sports a great presentation.  The shots of the zoo (the cinematographer is Rodriego Prieto — Brokeback Mountain, Water for Elephants) are beautiful and the release really highlights them.  The place may be rather rundown, but that doesn’t mean the animals and grounds can’t look fantastic (apparently) and they do.  As you may expect from a new film being put on Blu-ray, the level of detail is outstanding – the hairs on the animals with hair are all distinct as are the patterns on the snakes.  The colors, too, look great.  Again, this is exceptionally noticeable on the lush grounds of the zoo and animals.  The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio soundtrack is also lush and beautiful, the sound design and presentation puts the viewer right there in the lion cage and just about everywhere else be it city or country.  As with the visuals, it’s hard really to find fault with anything here on the audio track.

As for the special features, the Blu-ray does come with both a DVD and digital copy as well as an audio commentary with Crowe, editor Mark Livolsi, and JB Smoove (a comedian who plays the real estate agent in the film).  There is also a gag reel (which have moderately amusing moments but nothing that is really a must-watch) and deleted/extended scenes.  Another piece focus on the real Benjamin Mee and his story (it is only vaguely similar to the real tale… perhaps mostly with him having bought a zoo).  Then yet another featurette looks at the film’s score.  The most extensive of all the pieces (and worth one’s time) is the more-than-an-hour-long making-of documentary.  It is a detailed look at what went into making the film and is well constructed and quite in-depth without ever losing the audience’s attention.

Filled with great performances (Thomas Haden Church is great as Benjamin’s brother, Elle Fanning plays a love interest for Dylan, and Angus Macfadyen is drunken, sometimes disgruntled, worker), We Bought a Zoo isn’t a film that strives to be more than it is, and that’s another reason why it works as well as it does.  It is a small, heartwarming tale that seems to exist solely to bring warmth and comfort to the audience.  Even if you know everything that’s going to happen in the movie, the film’s upbeat earnestness manages to carry the day.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.