Friday, April 13, 2012

We Bought A Zoo (Blu-ray Review)

Reviewed by Jami Ferguson
Benjamin Mee (Damon) is a Los Angeles newspaper columnist and adventure writer who, as a single father, faces the challenges of raising his two young children.  Hoping that a fresh start and a new life will restore their family spirit, Mee quits his job and buys an old rural house outside the city with a unique bonus feature: a zoo named the Rosemoor Animal Park, where dozens of animals reside under the care of head zookeeper Kelly Foster (Johansson) and her dedicated team.  With no experience, limited time and a shoestring budget, Mee sets out with the support of his family and the local community to reopen the zoo.  Now, Benjamin is no longer reporting an adventure story; he’s living it in his own backyard.

Film (3 out of 5 stars)
We Bought a Zoo is based on the true story of Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a man who has  recently lost his wife and is raising his two children the best he can.  He has a seven-year old girl named Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) and fourteen-year old son named Dylan (Colin Ford). Dylan has dealt with his mother’s death by turning to his artwork, turning out some violent and disturbing images. That combined with other problems at school lead to Dylan's expulsion.

Unhappy with their current home and the parties next door, Benjamin and Rosie, along with a Realtor who's on his first day of work, head out to look at other houses. House after house they immediately zero in on a flaw for each house that proves that the house is wrong for them until they come across an older house that has a lot of character. Despite not being interested in the other houses, Rosie had been taking pictures of each house but after seeing this final house, Benjamin tells Rosie she can stop taking pictures because they are home.  Not everything is perfect however, becauseInstead of parties next door, they hear a lion's roar and quickly learn there is a catch to the property as the house also comes with a zoo.  Benjamin's first instinct is to keep looking for another property but when he sees Rosie happily playing with some of the animals, he decides to stay and moves his family into their new home.

Up until this point, the zoo has been maintained by a skeleton crew that includes a zookeeper named Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), a carpenter and enclosure designer, Peter Macready (Angus MacFayden), and Robin Fugit (Patrick Fugit).  There's also Lily Miska (Elle Fanning) who is the home schooled relative of Kelly who is paid under the table because she is too young to legally work.  The Mee family and the zoo crew work together to restore the Rosemoor Wildlife Park to its former glory.  Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins) stars as the park inspector who has the power to shut them down at any moment and is the man they are all working to please.

Overall, I was a typical "cute" family film, and was pretty much exactly what I had expected, but  I was a little surprised at how sad it was.  I knew that the film was about a man that had recently been widowed, but I didn't expect that the film would devote so much time to his sadness that accompanied his loss.  I expected him to quickly move on with his new life and get to a good place where he and his children were able to deal with the loss.  Instead, the sadness lasted almost all the way through the movie so be forewarned if you watch this movie with small children.  

I know plenty of viewers that will argue that it all works out too nicely and easily in the end. It may be wrapped up nicely in a little bow for you, but what's wrong with that?  The actress that played Rosie, Maggie Elizabeth Jones is one of the sweetest little girls I've seen and I wanted her to have a nice happy ending.  Matt Damon plays his character well but he isn't the smooth capable Jason Bourne I'm used to seeing.  He plays the sweet but slightly awkward Benjamin Mee well. As an added bonus, We Bought A Zoo came with a free child's admission to go to a real zoo and that's pretty cool for a parent of a four-year old.  It's a great idea to watch a movie with some cool animals in it, and then go to the zoo and see some of the same animals. 

Video (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

We Bought A Zoo is presented on Blu ray with an exceptional 1080p AVC encoded transfer.  Flesh tones are accurate and the texture of the tiger’s fur is amazingly detailed.  In both day light and darkness, natural and manufactured light the colors are authentic throughout.

Audio (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)
As you would expect, the animal noises are ever present and surrounding in the We Bought a Zoo soundtrack.  The DTS-HD Master Audio Track also impressed with the sounds of wind, rain, and other environmental effects.  Dialogue is clear and consistent throughout the film and the film's score is not to be ignored as well.

Special Features (4 out of 5 stars)

The Special Features are adequate in quality and quantity and I enjoyed watching them as much as I did the film.  It's got everything I would expect, a gag reel, commentary and interviews with the real Benjamin Mee.
  • Audio Commentary - Directory Cameron Crowe, editor Mark Livolsi and actor JB Smoove discuss the film.  With such a small role in the film, I was surprised to see JB Smoove in the commentary at all. 
  • Deleted & Extended Scenes - A lengthy list of deleted and extended scenes totaling over 37 minutes. 
  • We Shot a Zoo - A 5 part making of documentary about making the film.  Features interviews with cast and filmmakers.
  • Their Happy is Too Loud - A Featurette about the score.
  • The Real Mee - The Real Benjamin Mee talks about the zoo and how he became the owner/operator.
  • Gag Reel - A rather lengthy gag reel at almost 7 minutes.
  • Photo Gallery - Photography by Neal Preston.
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Sneak Peeks

Final Thoughts  (4 out of 5 stars)
My total rating of this is a little high based on the special features and the exceptional audio and video quality.  The movie itself was only a 3/5.  They didn't actually say We Bought a Zoo as often as I thought, but it was overused.  I wish the film had been a little less sad about the dead mom and a little more upbeat early on.  But overall I enjoyed it.  Scarlett Johansson is not one of my favorite actresses and she bothered me a lot less than she usually does, so that was also a plus.  It's definitely a family movie and I'm happy to have a new family movie that isn't animated. I'm not going to over think this one and criticize it for ending too nicely or being too happy. I don't want to know how much of the true story was actually true. I think Matt Damon and his kids make a nice zoo family and We Bought a Zoo is a pretty cute movie. It's not Oscar worthy, but it is worthy of a place on my Blu-ray shelf.

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