Cameron Crowe is my favorite writer/director. Well, he was through 2000 when he made the amazing Almost Famous. Then things started to go not so well. Vanilla Sky was ambitious but flawed and Elizabethtown in 2005 was, well, not very good. But he’s got the goods and I like what he does, generally. So the only reason I would even consider watching a family friendly movie called We Bought a Zoo is because Crowe is the co-writer and director. He makes this movie better than the premise deserves to be, but it’s not fantastic.
I’m not sure how much plot explanation is needed for a movie called We Bought a Zoo. It sorta says it all right there, doesn’t it? The “we” in this case is a family headed by Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), a journalist who is dealing with the recent death of his wife and trying to raise his bitter 14-year-old son, Dylan (Colin Ford), and insanely cute and mature-beyond-her-years daughter, Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). Dylan steals and draws dark and violent pictures in school, ultimately getting expelled. While looking for a new place to live and a “new start” Ben and Rosie come upon the perfect house. Only catch, it comes with zoo! Yeah, it shocked me, too.
Crowe uses all his old tricks of dreamy cinematography with spot-on original music and cues from famous songs of the '60s and '70s. He also brings more realism to the whole project -- it’s based on a true story in England -- than you might expect. It’s not a wacky “fish out of water” story, although it incorporates some of those elements. The heart of the movie is Ben’s relationship with his kids, his skeptical brother (Thomas Haden Church), and the zoo’s workers lead by Kelly (Scarlett Johansson). Again, Crowe resists the urge for a full-blown romance/misunderstanding/reconciliation with Ben and Kelly's flirtation, allowing the attraction to build more naturally.
Not that there aren’t missteps. The character of Rosie is just too unbelievable. I mean, obviously it’s possible for kids to be as darn cute as she is, but the level of maturity and knowingness rings false. As do the general eccentricities of the other zoo workers (Patrick Fugit, Angus Macfayden, Carla Gallo), and a secondary relationship between Dylan and Kelly’s cousin (Elle Fanning). Also, Crowe falls into the trap of not wanting to end a movie that is clearly over. After a big inspection with a curiously hostile inspector (John Michael Higgins), a natural ending place and a good 105 minutes into the movie, the film adds another crisis that seems to exist just to pad the running time.
The performances of the leads, especially Damon, and the way the movie handles the subject matter put this above the usual romantic, odd-situation comedy. You feel that while this may not be the way it really happened, it's close to how real people would handle the situation. It’s funny and family-friendly to boot.
There is a surprising amount of extras on the We Bought a Zoo Blu-ray combo pack. It includes both a DVD and an electronic copy of the film. The picture and sound quality are very good and the cinematography is better than you would expect from a family/animal movie. There is even a “family-friendly” audio track that cuts out the couple of curse words.
Director/co-writer Cameron Crowe leads a commentary that includes editor Mark Livolsi and actor J.B. Smoove. Smoove’s presence is a head scratcher. He has a brief, and funny, scene as the real estate agent who sells Benjamin the zoo. The character is memorable, but it’s a very brief scene at the beginning of the film and then he’s never seen again (well, except for about three seconds at the very end). Crowe notes that Smoove is being included to make the commentary more exciting, and he does add some funny comments. Unfortunately, he gets a bit tiresome after a while and it distracts from the information provided by Crowe and Livolsi. If he’d been there for just the first 30 minutes or so, it might have gone better. There is one riff near the end about taking off and buying glasses that is just deadly to listen to.
The main featurette is “We Shot a Zoo.” Not only is that a clever title, but the 75-minute extra is pretty well done. Shot in a Crowe-like style, it’s a bit more arty than that usual behind-the-scenes stuff. It’s also in-depth, covering not just the filming, actors, and the like, but the real Benjamin Mee, the development of the story, and the construction of the zoo “set” on an empty ranch. The transformation is mind-boggling.
There are 35 minutes of deleted and extended scenes. None are particularly earth shattering, but a few show the set-ups for payoffs that remain in the film but aren't as clear without the extra information provided by the deleted scene.
The other extras are 20 minutes on the film’s composer, Jonsi, a member of the Icelandic band, Sigur Ros. It’s clear Crowe loves this band, as he mentions it often. Like “We Shot a Zoo” this is a bit artier than the usual featurette and shows a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff involved in scoring the film, along with a conversation/interview between Crowe and Jonsi. There is also a slightly more traditional 30-minute documentary about the real Benjamin Mee. It covers the actual zoo and the challenges that come with living at and running a zoo without a zoological background. The extras are wrapped up with a trailer and a gag reel that’s pretty funny.
It doesn’t blow the doors off the joint, but We Bought a Zoo is a good movie. It’s especially adept at presenting a more realistic portrayal of a pretty out-there situation. It’s not a complete return to the Cameron Crowe of the '90s, but it washes the Elizabethtown taste out of your mouth. And mentioning El Cajon, Escondido, and other San Diego locales is a bonus.