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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