*** Originally published on Beyond the Marquee, 04/16/12 ***
Cameron Crowe (“Say Anything”, “Jerry Maguire”) is the master of romantic comedy. Very few directors can pull off that perfect emotional blend of sadness and humor that turns an audience to putty in his hands. But as we know, nobody’s perfect and Crowe’s last narrative film, 2005′s “Elizabethtown” was a critical and box office flop. His latest effort, “We Bought a Zoo” (now available in a Blu-Ray + DVD combo from 20th Century Fox) is definitely a step in the right direction, but is this Zoo worth the price of admission?
The title of this one says it all. Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), devastated by the death of his wife, tries to escape her memory by moving his family to an 18 acre property in the middle of nowhere… and yes, it has a zoo. His son Dylan (in a pitch perfect performance by Colin Ford), deals with the loss through delinquency and isolation. Meanwhile, his daughter Rosie (saccharine-sweet Maggie Elizabeth Jones), becomes the little lady of the house. Rosie immediately takes to the idea of living in a zoo, while problems with Dylan intensify as the teen grows more resentful of his father’s unusual choices. Along with the dilapidated menagerie of animals, the Mee’s also inherit a wacky cast of characters who manage the property. There’s nurturing zookeeper Kelly Foster (an initially frumpy, then miraculously beautiful Scarlett Johannson), hotheaded carpenter Peter MacCready (Angus MacFadyen providing some comic relief) and handyman Robin Jones (Crowe veteran Patrick Fugit). Kelly’s thirteen year old niece, Lily (the promising Elle Fanning), also works under the table at the property’s restaurant and serves as a love interest for young Dylan. The other staff is mostly forgettable including a Laurel and Hardy-esque duo that seem to have had their roles mercifully cut down and a secretary who’s just kind of a lousy person. As the in-over-his-head Benjamin works to get the place back up and running, he’s forced to deal with a much-hated zoo inspector, his crumbling family, dwindling finances and ultimately the way he looks at death… as well as life.
Cameron Crowe’s strong suit tends to be more-human-than-human characters who just happen to spout out some of the most memorable lines in movie history. Sadly, this isn’t the case here. Some of the characters are great but I often felt like I was being told how I should respond to them. For example, the most annoying real estate agent in the history of the profession (played by comic JB Smoove) is obviously supposed to be funny because they’re trying so hard to make us laugh. Instead he’s the comic equivalent of nails down a chalkboard. Then there’s Rosie, who follows in the footsteps of “Jerry Maguire’s” Ray and Lloyd Dobbler’s little nephew in “Say Anything”. Crowe always includes a cute kid for his protagonist to bond with and play off of. Maggie Elizabeth Jones is no doubt a cute kid, but she strikes me as the typical child actor who’s just a little too enthusiastic. She (or her director) seem to be more concerned about what sassy pose or facial expression she should wear as she delivers her lines than how she actually delivers them.
Sadly, you’ll find no “Show me the money!” or “I gave her my heart, she gave me a pen.” here, either. What you will get is Rosie screaming several times over “We bought a zoo!!” (in case you forgot) and the bumper sticker worthy “Why not?” There is an inspirational speech where Benjamin tells his son that all you need is “twenty seconds of insane courage and something great will happen,” but as good as it is, it just doesn’t quite have the same gut wrenching, tingle-in-your-spine magic as singing “Tiny Dancer” on a tour bus.
This isn’t to say “We Bought a Zoo” is a bad film and there are plenty of genuine moments to be had. Benjamin’s whole emotional journey is something so fundamental in how we work as people. Life goes on after tragedy. It’s painful, but you have to move on or you slowly die, stagnant. Anyone who’s had to grieve can appreciate Benjamin’s inability to visit the places he went with his wife, months after the loss. We all can understand at some primal level his not being able to throw away her clothes, though she’ll never wear them again. The relationship between Benjamin and Dylan is so full of love, strain and frustration that it rings true whether you’re a father or a son and the final scene of the film has some of that Cameron Crowe magic… but you have to wait nearly two hours to get it. At least we go out on the right note.
The Blu-Ray transfer really looks great on this one. There’s kind of a soft grain left in, giving it that movie theater look. The 5.1 Dolby Digital HD sound mix really shines when Crowe’s musical choices swell up or when an animal roars, but as Shakespeare said, “The play’s the thing.” This is the type of movie in which what is being said is far more important than how it sounds. I’d have been into the film watching it on a black and white set with only one speaker. That said, Fox did a bang up job on making this disc look and sound fantastic.
A good number of extras are provided, including an alternate “family friendly” audio track and an “Ice Age” short presented before the feature. There’s the theatrical trailer (which I believe should be included on every single Blu-Ray and DVD disc by default), a chuckle worthy, yet completely unnecessary Gag Reel, some so-so extended and deleted scenes and a few nice featurettes. “The Real Mee” is, of course, about the real life Benjamin Mee whoactually lived out and wrote down the story on which this movie is based. While the film takes place in Los Angeles, Mee’s “Dartmoor Zoological Park” is actually in England. “We Shot a Zoo” takes you behind the scenes and shows how the crew actually tried to create a zoo that stayed true to the “DZP” on this side of the pond. “Their Happy is Too Loud” is a look at the scoring of the film. Music is obviously a big part of Crowe’s life and is no doubt a huge part of the movies he makes and the film’s composer, Jonsi (of the Icelandic band “Sigur Ros”) has created something absolutely gorgeous. This seventeen minute look at the process is a gem, spending more time on this aspect of filmmaking than most DVD extras ever choose to. There is also a still photo gallery, which is an extra I usually skip over, but there are some truly beautiful shots here. Sure there are plenty of the obligatory production stills, but there are some photos of bears, peacocks, tigers, and flamingos that almost make you feel like you’re at the zoo. There are also some Scarlett Johannson photos, so that’s nice too.
Then we have the Director’s Commentary track. Again, I can’t stress this enough: I love Cameron Crowe. I love to hear how his beautiful mind works. Included in the commentary is editor Mark Livolsi, who adds quite a bit as they discuss the eight or so different cuts of the film and how they ended up with the final version. Also inexplicably included is actor JB Smoove, who has all of five minutes in the movie and completely ruins this commentary. It’s like being on a long flight with a really good book and not being able to read it because some dipshit next to you wants to have a conversation about wild boars. It’s easily one of the most painful commentaries I’ve listened to and there’s no way to shut him up. Why is he on there? Why??? I’d have rather heard Crystal the Capuchin (the drug dealing monkey from “The Hangover II”) shriek into the microphone for two hours than hear his “comedic” babbling take time away from the filmmakers. This is the very reason why people don’t listen to commentary tracks and it’s a shame.
All in all, however, “We Bought a Zoo” is a terrific movie to watch with the family. Younger kids will love the idea of living in a zoo and being able to see all the beautiful animals in high definition. Adults will gravitate towards the story of love, loss and loving again. In my opinion, it’s worth the two hours you put into it, but it’s more of a rental than a purchase. Just because they bought a zoo, doesn’t necessarily mean you should too.