When people come to see Judge Erich Asperschlager, he's usually sleeping in his cave.
"It is what it is."
At his best, no one captures the feeling of feelings like Cameron Crowe. His stylized dialogue is more poetry than things a real person would say, his characters living versions of the pop songs he covered for Rolling Stone and feature prominently in his movies. Early films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Say Anything tapped into the heightened passions of youth. As Crowe grew older, so did his characters. Teen journalists and lovesick high schoolers became sports agents and failed shoe designers.
His first adult-focused film, Jerry Maguire, was also his last big hit. Since then, his films have been either disappointments, like Vanilla Sky and Elizabethtown, or music documentaries, like The Union and Pearl Jam: Twenty. Crowe returns to the world of feature films with We Bought a Zoo, adapted from a book by journalist Benjamin Mee. Packed with family drama, cute kids, animals, and the director's brand of uncynical optimism, it is as "Cameron Crowe" a film as any he has made since his autobiographical Almost Famous, in the best and worst ways.
Facts of the Case
It's been six months since Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon, True Grit) lost his wife (Stephanie Szostak, The Devil Wears Prada) to cancer, leaving him to care for their children Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones, Footloose) and Dylan (Colin Ford, Push) on his own. Their world is thrown into even more turmoil after Benjamin quits his job and Dylan gets expelled from school. Looking for a fresh start, Benjamin hires a first-time realtor (J.B. Smoove, Curb Your Enthusiasm) to find them a new place to live. Their search takes them to a beautiful country house surrounded by rolling hills. It seems like the perfect home, but there's a catch: the property is a rundown zoo that can only be sold to someone who's willing to fix it up. Inspired by his daughter's love for the zoo, and against the advice of his brother (Thomas Haden Church, Sideways), Benjamin and his family buy Rosemoor Wildlife Park, complete with exotic animals and a quirky staff that includes a burly Scottish caretaker (Angus Macfayden, Braveheart), gossipy bookkeeper (Carla Gallo, Undeclared), monkey-loving handyman (Patrick Fugit, whose movie career began with Crowe on Almost Famous), a no-nonsense zookeeper (Scarlett Johansson, Ghost World), and her teen cousin (Elle Fanning, Super 8) who has a crush on Dylan. With opening day looming and the money running out, it takes everything Benjamin has to finish the zoo and hold his family together.
Like 2001's Vanilla Sky, We Bought a Zoo is an adaptation—in this case, of a memoir by a British journalist who renovated a rundown zoo in southwest England. With co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna, who wrote the first draft of the script, Crowe changed the Mee's story to include more obvious Hollywood hooks. They moved the story to American soil, upped the gags and plot twists, and made the death of Benjamin's wife the primary motivation for uprooting his family. In reality, Benjamin and Katherine Mee bought Dartmoor Zoological Park together. Sadly, she died of cancer shortly after, leaving her husband to carry on their dream.
We Bought a Zoo begins after Katherine's passing, fitting for a film that's more interested in life than death. Even though her physical presence is limited to fantasy flashbacks, Katherine is at the center of the story. The void left by her absence is the cause for strife between Benjamin and Dylan, and the reason he is so desperate to move. Later in the story, she acts as guardian angel, helping the zoo and her family in surprising ways. The Mee family story is moving and sweetly observed. It's the best thing about the movie. It's also the part that's in constant danger of being overwhelmed by a story overstuffed with characters and gimmicks.
Renovating a rundown zoo is hard enough without a screenwriter working against you. We Bought a Zoo is an endless string of sudden crises and convenient solutions. In addition to the financial and personal strain of zoo ownership, Benjamin has to deal with inclement weather, staff mutiny, sick and escaped animals, and a hard-nosed inspector (John Michael Higgins, Arrested Development) who controls their destiny with clipboard and pen. There are so many manufactured obstacles it's often hard to care, especially when you know everything will be resolved in a Crowe-patented happy ending. There are no real stakes or danger. Even the zoo's large predators seem as likely to hug Benjamin as rip out his throat.
The lack of teeth in We Bought a Zoo comes partly from it being a family film—the first of Crowe's filmography to get a PG rating. It's also one of the only Cameron Crowe films that didn't start with an original idea. He is a talented enough writer to bend the story to his purpose, but the best moments get lost among the freak rain storms, escaped animals, and emergency cage repair. When the movie works—as it does in Benjamin's interactions with his children, or in some of quirky characters—it's as effective as anything the director has made. When the film descends into clunky resolutions and too-sunny platitudes, it's as disposable as most Hollywood family fare.
We Bought a Zoo hits Blu-ray in a lush 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer. It's not the sharpest film, but what it lacks in detail it makes up for in rich, natural color. Every frame is bathed in warm California sun that shines even brighter in high definition. Music is a key part of Crowe's filmmaking process, from location scouting to inspiring his actors. Although We Bought a Zoo isn't as packed with classic rock as some of his other movies, he still fits in some Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Neil Young among the distinctive, airy score written by Sigur Rós's Jónsi. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is clear and open, albeit front-heavy. Audio comes in several languages, including an English "family friendly" track that replaces the film's few swear words with alternates like "shoot" and "rascal."
Say what you will about the film itself, but We Bought a Zoo's bonus features do not disappoint, including a 75 minute making-of documentary, feature commentary, deleted scenes, and featurettes:
• Commentary—Cameron Crowe, editor Mark Livolsi, and J.B. Smoove talk behind the scenes info, including the ways Crowe established the tone of the film, and the logistics of creating and filming in a zoo set. Smoove is introduced as a way to spice up the commentary, but he's more of a distraction than anything else, goofing around with jokes about bedroom role playing with his wife, his preferred bread to peanut butter ratio, and the philosophy of the toupee.
• Deleted and Extended Scenes (37:27)—An impressive collection of 20 scenes taken out of the final version of the film, including more of Carla Gallo's gossipy Rhonda, a longer version of Buster the bear's escape, and a reference to a running gag about the inspector's noisy stomach that didn't make the cut.
• "We Shot a Zoo" (1:15:52)—Narrated by Crowe, this lengthy making-of doc covers the 5-year-plus process of bringing Benjamin Mee's story to the screen, including writing, casting, finding the location, working with animals, and filming some of the movie's signature scenes.
• "Their Happy is Too Loud" (17:29)—A closer examination of Icelandic composer Jonsi's score.
• "The Real Mee" (28:35)—An interview with Benjamin Mee, about the realities of renovating and running the Dartmoor Zoological Park, its animal inhabitants, his children, and his wife's diagnosis and death.
• Gag Reel (6:57)
• Photo Gallery
• This three-disc set comes with a Blu-ray, DVD, and digital copy of the film, although only the Blu-ray has all of the bonus features. The DVD copy is limited to audio commentary and the 23-minute "It's a Zoo!" segment, taken out of the longer "We Shot a Zoo" documentary.
In a movie industry dominated by cynics and opportunists, Cameron Crowe is a rarity, making films that are full of joy and free from irony. Even when I don't love his movies, I want to. There are parts of We Bought a Zoo that deserve to be loved and celebrated—wonderful, honest moments shared by likeable characters. Unfortunately, those moments are sandwiched between frantic plot acrobatics designed to distract young viewers. There's a difference between a zoo and an amusement park. One has zebras, the other has rollercoasters. I'm not sure which one Cameron Crowe tried to build.
I wouldn't buy this zoo, but I didn't mind visiting. Not Guilty!
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