Cameron Crowe‘s latest family drama We Bought a Zoo is light on the actual drama and heavy on the family-friendly animal oriented jokes. Crowe takes advantage of the zoo setting and takes shortcuts telling the story, favoring the animal jokes and silly tone a bit too much. We Bought a Zoo is a misfired family drama that could have been so much more. Matt Damon carries the film with his role as the father, but no-one steps in to help keep the film interesting. It eventually loses steam and falls into a pile of its own horseshit.
Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) and his two kids are looking for a fresh start. After losing his wife he’s decided to up and move the family. Things aren’t exactly easy for him, with his son having troubles at school and adapting to a world without his mom. His daughter on the other hand is open to adventures and pushes Ben towards purchasing a house that is tied down to a zoo and its underpaid staff.
The staff consists of several hardworking individuals like Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson); a young busybody that’s too busy putting hours into the zoo and not living a normal life. Despite his brother Duncan’s (Thomas Haden Church) warnings, Matt buys the property and sinks his entire net worth into the zoo and its hopeful success. It’s a long hard road to victory, but Benjamin and his family are dedicated towards opening the zoo in the summer.
Cameron Crowe approaches We Bought a Zoo with two vastly different tones. The first tone is a more kid-friendly family film that takes advantage of the setting and tells as many animal jokes as possible. Whenever there’s a cute moment with a monkey or a tiger, Crowe captures it in hopes of making the audience enjoy how adorable everything in the film is. The other tone is that of a more heavy drama that deals with the disconnect a family goes through after a major death.
Crowe never quite manages to gel both these tones together, resulting in a forced mixing of two different films with two different agendas. This makes it really hard to be completely satisfied with the film, because on one hand you have a shallow film that the whole family can enjoy and on the other hand you have a drama that has more than enough actor support to be successful.
Matt Damon steps out of his usual boundaries as the father Benjamin. Damon isn’t a clever spy or wealthy businessman in We Bought a Zoo; he’s more of an everyday father figure that’s trying to deal with the struggles of losing a wife and being faced with raising a family on his own, without much experience. His character was an adventurous writer that’s circled the globe covering all sorts of risky stories, but now he has to face the adventure of maintaining a family and doing what’s best for everyone.
He captures that understanding father figure that’s doing his best to keep things working with such sincere honesty. Benjamin isn’t a perfect father and he’s never afraid to admit when he’s messed up completely and Damon helps bring those traits to life. It’s not his best work, but it shows his ability to really stretch a thin character into something semi-memorable.
Scarlett Johansson doesn’t elevate the character of Kelly to anything more than something pretty to look at. Part of the reason is the lack of focus on the character’s actual purpose in the film. Is she a love interest for Benjamin or just a really good family friend? Crowe never really follows one more than the other and it makes Johansson come off just as confused as the viewer.
We Bought a Zoo is nothing more than a passable family film that might work as a rental for all ages. I wouldn’t call it memorable or impressive, but I wouldn’t say it’s terrible. There are a handful of scenes that are completely dumb and only make the running time slightly longer and I question why Crowe even left them in the film, probably because he wanted to appeal to a wider audience and not turn the film into a full-fledged drama. I would have preferred a more dramatic film that really focused on the hardships of losing a loved one and properly coping with such a scenario, but Crowe delivers something else entirely and it doesn’t really work.
Fox brings the film to life with a 1080p video transfer that is exceptionally well. Colors are natural and never refrained or held back due to crushing or banding. Just about every scene in the film offers something beautiful to look at. There are a lot of greens and browns in the film and there incredibly striking and strong. Skin tones are clear and warm with little grain structuring the film. We Bought a Zoo is another knockout from Fox.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is a lot less noticeable than the video. It’s more of a low-end track, with dialogue fully understandable and nature sounds absorbing the back channels, but never coming at you on full blast. Everything feels restrained and content and I’m not sure if that’s a director’s decision or just the way the audio is presented.
The disc comes with over 2 hours of bonus content. Here’s a detailed list below:
- Audio Commentary: Director Cameron Crowe, actor J.B. Smoove and editor Mark Livolsi provide their voices for a fairly dry track that stays focused and standard.
- Deleted & Extended Scenes (HD): 20 deleted/extended scenes.
- We Shot a Zoo (HD): An extensive making-of documentary that covers the entire production of the film.
- Their Happy Is Too Loud (HD): A feature dedicated to the making of the film’s score.
- The Real Mee (HD): A look at the real Benjamin Mee and the story about how he bought the zoo.
- Gag Reel (HD): A typical gag reel.
- Photo Gallery (HD)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD)
- Sneak Peeks (HD)
- DVD Copy
- Digital Copy
We Bought a Zoo is a disappointment in the drama department, but a more than acceptable family-friendly film. It has Cameron Crowe‘s stamp on it, but it doesn’t feel like something that’s fully his. There’s just too many moments that feel glossed over or poorly detailed that really hold the film back from being good. Matt Damon‘s performance almost feels wasted, but if he wasn’t in the film then I doubt I’d be recommending it at all.
The Blu-Ray is a knockout in the video department and an okay presentation in the audio department. The special features are plentiful, making the combo pack a purchase that you might not regret, if you enjoyed the film. Still, I’d stick to renting the film and waiting for Black Friday or a sale to purchase it. There’s just not enough too really like in the film to warrant a purchase.