Blu-ray Review: We Bought a Zoo

At my house, if a movie features animals of any kind we’re almost guaranteed to see it at some point. That comes with having a veterinarian for a wife and two animal-loving daughters. (Of course, I’m not an ogre and have to say I like animals too, considering we have always had pets.) And at one time when we were living in Phoenix, we had our own private zoo – two dogs, two cats, a rabbit, two Desert Tortoises and two African tortoises. We’re down to two dogs and three rats now, but you get the idea…

So when We Bought a Zoo came to theaters, we were destined to see it. And everyone but me did see it on the big screen. So when it came out on DVD and Blu-ray, I knew I needed to see it too.

Starring Matt Damon (Contagion, True Grit), Scarlett Johansson (Iron Man 2, Vicky Cristina Barcelona), and Thomas Haden Church (Easy A, Sideways, and TV’s Wings), director Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous ,Jerry Maguire) takes us on a journey with a grieving family and a small zoo that’s fallen on hard times.

Benjamin Lee (Damon) is a newspaper writer who is adjusting to being a single father and trying to raise his two kids while finding his own way after his wife’s death to cancer. Deciding that it’s time to start fresh, he looks for a new house from which to start rebuilding their lives. When they finally settle on one, it turns out it comes with a bit of baggage – a zoo named the Rosemoor Animal Park. Dozens of different species live there under the care of head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Johansson) and her dedicated, but eclectic team.

Can Lee, his kids, and the zoo staff pull it together in time to open for the season? Or will the pressure get to be too much?

As this is a “feel good” story, you already know the answer I’m betting. But even though you know the destination, it’s the journey that matters. Damon manages at once to be charming and dedicated to that journey while also showing the human side of the equation. It’s not easy to move on after losing someone you love. It’s not easy to figure out how to put the pieces back together and build something worthwhile. But he and the rest of the cast bring the rest of us along for the ride.

Is this the best movie of 2012? No. Was it fun, heartwarming, and engaging? Heck yes.

The relationships between Damon, Johansson, and Church seem genuine. I could believe Damon and Church as brothers with the inside jokes and jabs that comes with being family. And the push and pull between Damon and Johansson from their initial meeting to the end helps keep the story on the rails.

But for me it was the kids as much as Damon and Johansson that made this film come to life. Mee’s troubled teenage son Dylan (Colin Ford) and cute, bubbly daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) offer different perspectives of the journey – one dark, the other light. And Rosie was truly a bright spot even in tough times and a joy to see on screen. Her smile could brighten any day. Add to that Elle Fanning‘s Lily, the zoo keeper’s cousin, who doubled that bright spot Rosie created. Lily’s babbling enthusiasm was infectious.

And the rest of the eclectic cast – Angus Macfayden as the grumpy zoo exhibit specialist, John Michael Higgins as the jerk zoo inspector Walter Ferris, Carla Gallo (TV’s Bones) as the turncoat accountant Rhonda Blair, and J.B. Smoove as the enthusiastic realtor who introduces the Mee family to the zoo… It took me until watching the extras on the Blu-ray before I figured out where I’d seen Robin Jones who plays animal wrangler Patrick Fugit. Jones was in Crowe’s Almost Famous when he was 16! Ultimately everybody pulls together as parts in the machine to get us where we need to be.

As far as the extras on the Blu-ray go, it’s loaded with nearly 3 hours of special features. There are twenty deleted & extended scenes alone, which offer different takes on some of the aspects of the film. But as with all Cameron Crowe films, the final cut is better without them but they were interesting to explore. Also included are a gag reel that has some very funny outtakes in it; audio commentary from Crowe, Smoove, and editor Mark Livolsi; a long but powerful look behind the scenes offering a glimpse at the real Benjamin Mee all the way through the set construction and movie production; and more.

The picture and sound are top-notch on the Blu-ray. The colors and definition is crisp in 1080p without looking digitally done. Whether sun or shine, indoors or out, there was never a pixel out of focus unless the filmmaker and cinematographer wanted it to be. And with DTS-HD 5.1 surround sound, when the lion roars off screen as the Mee family is checking out the house on the zoo grounds the first time, it really gets your attention.

If you’re looking for engaging, family fare that doesn’t talk down to kids or adults, We Bought a Zoo offers plenty to discuss afterwards. Based on a real story, I think it pulls together all the right elements for a surprisingly engaging couple of hours.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Book Review: Red, White, and Blood by Christopher Farnsworth

How do you feel about the Boogie Man? No, we’re not talking about someone “shaking their groove thing” and we’re not talking about something you might get on your finger after some proboscoid exploration. We’re talking about the actual Boogie Man (or bogeyman or boogeyman or boogieman) – the original monster under the bed.

At my house, the Boogie Man received such attention by my youngest child that we had to invent a “Monster Alarm” (like a burglar alarm) that we would “arm” when we went to bed so no monsters could get her in the middle of the night. And during my own childhood I can remember a morbid fascination with monsters in the dark that has survived to the present day.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve really enjoyed Christopher Farnsworth‘s series about a vampire working for the President of the United States. With The President’s Vampire and Blood Oath Farnsworth introduced Nathaniel Cade, a vampire who was pardoned by President Andrew Johnson after a brutal set of murders on a whaling ship. He was then bound by Voodoo by a blood oath to serve and protect the President of the United States. Cade is a monster, but he protects the interests of the Presidents from the other monsters who also live there. Monsters of both literary and mythological origins.

The fact that Farnsworth has now brought Cade face to face with the Boogie Man is twisted enough to be genius. But that he can combine the Boogie Man with a political battle for the White House rife with commentary about the current political climate in the US makes it that much better. The first book grabbed my attention a few years ago, but the second one, though I enjoyed it, didn’t grab me as much. And Red, White, and Blood is now my favorite in the series.

When you consider all the foes Cade has faced in the first two books, from vampires and a real-life Dr. Frankenstein to the more mundane enemies, it’s amazing to think that he’s faced the Boogie Man before. He’s had other names, of course… The Zodiac Killer. BTK. The Ax Man of New Orleans. But as many times as Cade has faced and beaten him, he keeps coming back.

Now the Boogie Man is back and determined to end Cade once and for all. But more than that, he’s working with someone else this time. Helen Holt. A woman who has somehow stayed alive despite Cade’s efforts. A woman who wants Cade gone, but also wants to see power shift and new blood in the White House.

Can Cade defeat the Boogie Man once and for all? You’ll have to read Red, White, and Blood to find out.

For more about Nathaniel Cade and author Christopher Farnsworth, be sure to check out his website and follow him on Twitter!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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DVD Review: Shaun the Sheep: Shear Madness

Who knew the antics of a flock of sheep could be so entertaining? Yet Shaun the Sheep continues to entertain every time we get to see what he’s up to on the Farm! And he and the rest of the gang are back with a new collection of seven animated shorts in Shaun the Sheep: Shear Madness hitting DVD shelves recently.

If you’re not familiar with this series from the creators of Wallace & Gromit, each animated adventure features the antics of Shaun, Bitzer the Dog, the Farmer, the Pigs, the flock, and the whoever else shows up to cause trouble. Shaun does his best to keep the Flock entertained, while Bitzer does his best to keep the sheep in line for the Farmer. But that doesn’t keep them all from getting in and out of trouble in every episode!

Shaun the Sheep: Shear Madness features a collection of episodes from the show’s second season.

In “Pig Trouble,” Bitzer is out of commission with a broken leg, the Farmer asks the Pigs to step in and help out. Of course, the Pigs manage to make it all about them. They make the flock their slaves and turn the farm into a porcine resort, which doesn’t sit well with Shaun, Bitzer, or the Farmer!

Then, in “Sheepless Nights,” a storm drenches the Farm in rain and the flock has to deal with holes in the barn roof. Finding shelter turns out to be hard work, especially when the only other dry place to sleep turns out to be the pig’s house. Have you ever tried sleeping with a bunch of pigs? When that doesn’t work out, Shaun finds a solution to the problem with a bit of ingenuity…

With “Cat Got Your Brain?” the farm is visited by a pair of alien scientists who abduct Pidsley the Cat and Shaun, then swap their brains. Imagine the surprise of the Farmer and the rest of the flock when Shaun starts cleaning himself like a cat and Pidsley starts eating carrots! The aliens manage to correct the issue, but not before more madness ensues.

And in “Two’s Company,” Shaun finds love when a new sheep joins the flock accidentally. Initially they have no idea what to think of the new sheep who is covered in mud. But once Shaun cleans her up, he falls head over hooves in love and the pair are inseparable. Will she stay when her true owner comes looking for her?

Also included are “Party Animals,” “What’s Up, Dog?”, and “Draw the Line.”

Though we loved the new episodes we hadn’t seen already, I was a little disappointed by the duplication of “Party Animals” and “Draw the Line” which both showed up on a previous DVD collection.

As special features on the DVD you get “Sing-along With Shaun” and “Timmy Time Sneak Peek – Timmy’s Tune #2.” Both of these have appeared on other Shaun the Sheep DVDs.

If you’re looking for good clean family fun, Shaun the Sheep is tough to beat. Be sure to check out Shaun the Sheep: Shear Madness and other DVD collections today!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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