At this point Cameron Crowe’s films have a feel that is distinctly his – he’s an auteur. Going in, you know the sort of music he’s going to use, and you know the sort of melancholy emotions he’s going to go for. With his latest, We Bought a Zoo, he’s totally in his wheelhouse and that’s going to be enough for people who want that Cameron Crowe feeling. Matt Damon stars as a widower who decides to take his children out of the city, and buys a country home that is also an operating zoo where Scarlett Johansson works. Our review of the Blu-ray of We Bought a Zoo follows after the jump.
Damon stars as Benjamin Mee, who’s coping with being a single parent after his wife died. He’s got two kids, a troubled older tween son (Colin Ford) and a precocious daughter (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). The neighborhood ladies want to “console” him, but he’s not ready for a relationship or sex just yet, and he feels the need to leave his life as an adventurous reporter behind. His brother Duncan (Thomas Hayden Church) is supportive, but only so much. So Ben gets a real estate agent (JB Smoove), and the house that appeals to him and his daughter is the zoo.
Of course taking that on means operating it, and he has to deal with the wacky staff (headed up by Johansson), and the transition to country life with his kids. The son is bothered by the whole thing, but he’s got a possible love interest in Lily Miska (Elle Fanning). Ben has money problems getting the zoo up and running, and trouble from an inspector (John Michael Higgins) who’s a perfectionist.. Oh, and ScarJo is hot and possibly interested.
Cameron Crowe knows how to direct this material, and it’s buoyed by Matt Damon. Where Orlando Bloom felt like a vessel in Elizabethtown, Damon knows how to create an inner life. And at this point Damon is as close as we come to a Jimmy Stewart – an innately likeable on-screen presence who gives every performance a humanity that’s relateable. Damon’s a wonder, and he helps make the saccharine go down.
But at this point with Crowe there’s a sense of a formula. There’s a couple of moments of real beauty, and Crowe nails them – like when Damon’s Mee has to confront a freed bear – but it feels like a formula picture where you know where everything is going. Perhaps Crowe’s work has become too familiar. But he was never dangerous, and the honesty of something like Say Anything is hard to recapture – he’s been pretty hit and miss about it. This comes close, but it doesn’t feel as honest (nor as flawed) as Elizabethtown.
Perhaps he was trying to find himself, and what gives the film life is that it feels like a therapy session for Crowe, who was recently divorced. It doesn’t end with Damon’s character enjoying the group working together to get a Zoo open or going, it doesn’t focus much on his romantic interests, but instead closes with him coming to terms with his grief, and trying to let go of it. That’s interesting, but like a couple moments in the film, you wish that was more of what the movie was about. Perhaps because there’s a layer of sweetness and a level of BS that comes with this sort of movie the personal elements and any smuggling are harder to pin down. It’s a likeable movie, with a likeable cast, and they don’t offer too many surprises.
Twentieth Century Fox’s Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio. Crowe has always worked with great cinematographers, and here he’s paired with Rodrigo Prieto, who does excellent work. The film comes with a DVD and digital copy. The supplements kick off with twenty deleted and extended scenes (37 min.) that were smartly cut, and it’s followed by a Gag Reel (7 min.). There’s a five part making of called ‘We Shot a Zoo’ (76 min.), that talks about the real life inspiration for the film, how Crowe got involved, auditions, rehearsal and shooting, with good fly on the wall and non-EPK style interviews. There’s also a lot of cute animal footage. “Their Happy is too Loud” (17 min.) covers the scoring of the film, and Crowe working with Sigur Ros’ Jónsi. “The Real Mee” (29 min.) is an interview with the man who the film is based on and who gives a nice perspective on the reality of the film, and his children. There’s also a photo gallery, and a commentary track with Crowe, JB Smoove and editor Mark Livolsi, which comes with a two minute introduction. Smoove hadn’t seen the film so he acts as a tour guide, but also gets distracted – though sometimes goes on funny riffs.