I feel I must open this review with a disclaimer followed by another disclaimer. Prior to the theatrical release of 'We Bought A Zoo,' co-writer and director Cameron Crowe gave a fantastic interview to The Hollywood Reporter. In it, the interviewer doesn't stick to talking with Crowe about his critically acclaimed films ('Jerry Maguire' and 'Almost Famous'), but his duds. No, they don't talk about 'Vanilla Sky' - but Crowe is asked about 'Elizabethtown.' Crowe's response is unique and dead-on, reminding us that while many folks may strongly dislike those films, the people who like them really them. Disclaimer #1: I am one of those people who truly loves the Crowe films that the majority dislike. I view both 'Vanilla Sky' and 'Elizabethtown' as movies chock full of aesthetically pleasing content. I enjoy the trademark Cameron Crowe dialog that they're filled with. I began my college studies with an end goal of making movies, but quickly learned that I don't have a creative bone in my body – which is why I review them. (How does that old adage go? "Those who can't do, review?") One of the biggest reasons I am in love with Crowe's body of work is because he writes the type of movies that I would write if I had that ability. Only making me appreciate him more is his strong filmmaking style.
This disclaimer could leave you thinking, 'If Luke loves Cameron Crowe movies so much, it's no wonder he gave 'We Bought A Zoo' four stars. His rating is biased, therefore, irrelevant.' Before you jump to such a conclusion, let me give you another disclaimer. Disclaimer #2: Two months before 'We Bought A Zoo' opened, Fox held test screenings that showed the film tracking very high. The results were so good that they decided to hold sneak previews of the film across the country on the weekend following Thanksgiving – one month ahead of its nationwide release. Fox hoped that these sneaks would build a positive word-of-mouth, which it did. In fact, with many sold-out showing across the country, Fox held even more sneak previews just two weeks later. Being the Crowe fan that you now know me as, I couldn't wait the ten days until the press screening, so I actually gathered a large group of friends and paid to see it at the first sneak. This is where the actual disclaimer comes in. Not all of my friends are movie snobs like me. For this occasion, I actually didn't bring a single other snob. I was all alone in this aspect; however, I was not alone in my opinion of the film. I loved it. I walked away with a huge smile on my face, as did all seven of the friends who joined me that night. I watched first-hand as the studio's decision to show the film in sneak previews worked and my friends began posting good word on Facebook. Even though I may have walked in with a certain amount of bias, my friends definitely did not – and we all loved it.
'We Bought A Zoo' is based on a true story. Events have been shifted around in the timeline and sub-plots have been added to provide a little more tension, but the central story is absolutely true – no matter how strange and absurd it may sound. Don't believe me? Watch the special features. The book upon which the film is based is autobiographical in nature, telling the story of a widower and his two children embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. The film stars Matt Damon as the central character Benjamin Mee. Benjamin's wife passed away six months ago from cancer. While he has been holding up well since her passing, their little family has not. His teenage son Dylan has fallen into a dark state, but his innocent elementary age daughter Rosie has handled it well. It's when Dylan gets expelled from school that Benjamin realizes that they all need a change and now is the time to do it. Wanting an environment opposite that of the cluttered Southern California suburban lifestyle that they're accustomed to, Benjamin wants to move the family somewhere with a big yard and rolling hills. The only place that he can find that fits such a criteria comes with a lot more than a great view – it's a non-functioning 18-acre zoo that needs a lot of work to get up and running. Sitting on a nice inheritance and savings, Benjamin decides to go for it. He must get this zoo back up to code in order to open it again, hoping that fixing the zoo can fix his family too.
If you're familiar with Crowe's work, you know that this PG family movie sounds much different from anything he has done before. 'We Bought A Zoo' seems more like a Disney movie than one from the Academy Award-winning writer of 'Almost Famous.' Don't let this deter you. Yes, it is family-friendly, but not in a bad way. Aside from a few animal-driven "episodes," it is very much an adult movie, one that kids can enjoy too. I am typically annoyed by episodic kids content, but Crowe's adaptation makes them easier to stomach by giving you a little story-driving element in each of them. For example, Dylan accidentally lets out a load of snakes that have to be retrieved. Inside this little episode is a moment that builds the anger that Dylan has towards his father. Crowe manages to fit something important into each of these segments.
'We Bought A Zoo' contains just as much classic Crowe dialog as any other film in his credits. It's poetic, yet natural and smooth. I imagine that every Crowe fan will love his "20 seconds of insane courage" bit given by Benjamin to his son. It's the "you had me at hello" of this movie and it's fantastic.
While the story may not be the most Crowe-esque idea, he takes would should be a Disney movie and makes it about a group of great characters. 'We Bought A Zoo' is one of the easiest movies with which to make an emotional connection. In classic Crowe fashion, as Benjamin says, it's an "authentic American experience," one that absolutely anyone can feel emotionally. While many movies would dedicate a large chunk of story to giving Benjamin a new romantic interest, 'We Bought A Zoo' is mostly devoted to the family and the people who make a different in their lives. There's a little bit of romance, but it's on the back burner. Scarlett Johansson plays a character that would normally become the central romance, but only one brief scene of actual romance takes place between them. More romance is given to Dylan and a friend (Elle Fanning) than to Benjamin. In fact, the most romance shown in the whole film is between Benjamin and his deceased wife Katherine. Although she passed away before the narrative begins, she shows up here and there in flashbacks and photos. My all-time favorite creatively unique scene from any Cameron Crowe film takes place here in 'We Bought A Zoo' as Benjamin watches an iPhoto slideshow. I won't spoil it for you, but if you want to see Crowe back at the top of his game, check it out.
If you, like many others out there, feel like Crowe's last few feature films haven't lived up to his potential, give 'We Bought A Zoo' a shot. It has a great big heart and a set of characters that you'll grow to love. It's not the best of Crowe's movies, but it's a breath of unexpected well-made, feel-good air.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The three-disc combo pack contains a Region A BD-50, a DVD and Digital Copy of the film. The combo pack features a shiny cardboard slipcase, a coupon for a free child's admission to any Association of Zoos & Aquariums location, and a code for a free bonus copy of the movie available on Vudu. Upon inserting the disc into your player, unskippable vanity reels and warnings play, as well as the skippable three-minute 'Ice Age' short 'Scrat's Continental Crack Up' and a trailer for 'Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked.' The animated main menu is quite unique and nice. Set to the original score from Jónsi, even my wife made a remark about how cool the main menu looks. Please note that the disc not only contains the standard audio tracks, but an English "Family Friendly Audio Track" that removes the small amount of cursing that helped make the film PG.
If I could give the video quality a 4.95-star rating, I would. There's literally only one little problem that occurs three times throughout the film – very minor aliasing in a tight pattern on a shirt and on a couple of chain link fences. Aside from those short slightly flickering instances, this Blu-ray is crisp, clear and impressive.
Perhaps because of the high tracking, Fox has put a lot into this fantastic 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer. All 124 minutes of 'We Bought A Zoo' are exceptional, making the cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto absolutely breathtaking. Many scenes contain natural lighting and look phenomenal. One shot of Damon standing in the low morning sun reveals the shortest stubble and pores on his face. When a bear huffs and puffs in Damon's face, individual specks of slobber can be seen flying in the air that blows out of its mouth. This level of detail is ever present. From animal fur to the most plain-looking attire, everything carries a texture.
Black levels are fantastic, skin tones are natural and fleshy and the colors are deeply saturated, causing them to pop in vibrancy. Peacocks have never appeared so colorful. Sunlight has never looked so golden. Primaries explode in a larger-than-life fashion.
Compression flaws like banding, artifacts, and noise never appear and clean-up tools like edge enhancement and DNR have not been applied. Had it not been for a few medium shots that warranted aliasing, this would be a 5-star video release.
Many audio options are available to choose from. For this review, I focused on the lossless track – English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio – although I'm curious to see how well the Family Friendly track dubs over the minor swear words.
As anyone familiar with Crowe's musical taste would expect, the music just might be the highest point in the track. Please don't assume that I'm knocking the vocals and effects, it's just that the music sounds really good. Crowe is a die-hard fan of music in movies. If he uses it to set a tone on-set for the actors and crew, imagine how important it must be to him for us, the audience, to hear it well. Jónsi (of the Icelandic band Sigur Rós) scored the film. I dare say that no other composer could achieve what is done through his score. It's a perfect match for the content. The themes and tones are so well mixed throughout the channels that you can't help but feel whatever Crowe wants you to. The oddly-timed music and memorable themes are dynamically spread throughout the room. The same goes for all of the other songs used in the soundtrack.
The effects mixing is almost as strong as the music. Used consistently in every channel, there is always something to be heard around the room. When Benjamin drops his kids off at school, you can hear the sound of children playing throughout the channels. When a bear roars in his face, it sounds so bassy and strong that you can almost feel the breath blowing across your own face. As rain begins to fall, you can hear if pitter-patter on the surrounding different surfaces as if it was raining in your home. In the still of the warm summer night, you can hear the sounds of caged animal life ringing out through the zoo. There are even a few instances of seamless imaging.
Why 4.5 stars and not 5? This track still lacks the slightest little layer of extra dynamics in environmental sounds to propel it into perfect territory.
I couldn't have been more pleased with 'We Bought A Zoo.' It returns Crowe to his same crowd- and critic-pleasing form, all the while allowing him to grow and stretch as a filmmaker. He takes what should be a generic family film and adds a great big human heart that's made extra easy to connect with through his typical fantastic dialog and exemplary style. The supporting cast is just as strong and important in making this happen as the principle cast. Playing an unseen character is the moving original score from Jónsi of Iceland's Sigur Rós. The cinematography and beautiful visual style is made to look superbly clean and sharp via the Blu-ray disc's nearly flawless video quality. The audio quality also does the same sweet justice for Jónsi's score, bringing the zoo to life at the same time with its well-spread mix. With nearly three hours of special and high definition bonus features – not including the feature commentary – there's a lot to see and enjoy on this spectacular Blu-ray. 'We Bought A Zoo' is a real crowd pleaser. Sometimes we all need a little feel-good fluff and we're lucky that 'We Bought A Zoo' can offer it while containing great filmmaking, a genuine heart, and natural emotion. For anyone who enjoys Crowe's work or has a family, 'We Bought A Zoo' is a must-own Blu-ray.