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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: We Bought A Zoo

April 15th, 2012

We Bought a Zoo - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray Combo Pack

We Bought a Zoo was a family friendly film opening on Christmas weekend. This is a great time of year to open a film like this; however, the competition was really stiff that weekend and the film never managed a spot in the top five. On the other hand, it did finish with just over $75 million, so it clearly it had legs. Is it as good as its legs? Or as bad as its opening?

The Movie

The film begins with Dylan Mee telling us about his dad, Benjamin and how he's a writer / journalist who is not afraid of danger. However, nothing in his previous job prepared him to raise two kids on his own, Dylan and his younger sister, Rosie. His wife, their mother, died six months ago and no one in the family has really been able to adjust.

Benjamin gets some advice from his brother, Duncan, to, as he puts it, "let a little sunlight in." But instead he quits his job. (He felt his boss was keeping him around out of sympathy.) Next Dylan gets expelled, which pretty much forces his hand on the whole starting over. His plan is to move somewhere new. A new place, new schools, a new start. He does find what appears to be the perfect place, but there are complications. It used to be a zoo. In fact, it still is and whoever buys it has to maintain the animals, many of which are endangered. At first he decides its too much to handle, but Rosie loves the place so much that he buys it. Dylan, on the other hand, will take a lot more convincing.

When they arrive at their new home / zoo, they are greeted by the staff, which includes Kelly Foster, the head zookeeper; Robin Jones, the handyman; Peter MacCready, the designer; Rhonda Blair, the secretary; Nathan, who is in charge of water and feed; and finally there's Lily Miska, who is Kelly's 13-year old cousin that works in the Jaguar Restaurant. (She's technically too young to have a job, so she's paid under the table out of Kelly's salary. She's also home-schooled, so she's really excited about having a kid her age at the zoo, even if Dylan doesn't share this feeling.) The staff are happy someone is buying the zoo, but it's clear from the start that Benjamin isn't exactly experienced in this field and he's going to need to put in a lot of work if he's to get the zoo up and running in time for the summer tourist season and Kelly is not sure he's up to it, although she is intrigued about the kind of man who would try.

So that sets up the basic story of the film, which is about a father trying to reconnect with his son after the death of the wife / mother, and about them trying to get a struggling zoo up and running, and possible romance for the two of them. The exact details are spoilerish, I say "ish" because the film isn't particularly original. It is based on a true story, but I'm not sure how much of the details were changed. (I do know in real life the story took place in the U.K. and the head veterinarian was a guy... In fact, he's my boss's cousin.) I'm pretty sure some elements were added to make the film more Hollywood. That's not an insult so much as a statement of fact. The romances, the setbacks, the villainous bureaucrat, etc. all seem artificial. Fortunately, the film is well made enough that predictability is not a fatal flaw.

This is due in no small part to the cast, led by Matt Damon, who is able to play the grieving husband and the lost father very well. He does his best to prevent the film from slipping into sentimentality, and for the most part he succeeds. The supporting cast also added a lot to the film, especially from Thomas Haden Church, who played the brother and added a different vibe to the film. For the most part, the film deals with some heavy topics of loss and grief, and his performance, along with that of Maggie Elizabeth Jones help lighten the mood. On a side note, Elle Fanning is really good at playing the first love in a coming of age movie; however, that's a role she will quickly outgrow.

On a side note, Cameron Crowe has excellent taste in music and sometimes I think he makes movies so he has an excuse to showcase his favorite songs.

The Extras

Extras begin with with an audio commentary track with the director, Cameron Crowe; the editor, Mark Livolsi; and an actor, J.B. Smoove. J.B. Smoove plays the real estate agent and he's only in the movie for a few minutes, so he doesn't have a lot of background information to give, but he adds a lot of energy. That's all the extras that are on the DVD, which is not a lot.

Fortunately, the Blu-ray has a metric ton of additional extras, starting with nearly 40 minutes of deleted / extended scenes, followed by seven minutes of outtakes. We Shot a Zoo is a multi-part, 76-minute long making of featurette. Up next is an 18-minute featurette on the score. And finally, there's a 29-minute featurette on the real life Benjamin Mee. That's nearly 3 hours of Blu-ray exclusives, and while none of them push the technology, it is still a great selection of extras. The Blu-ray also comes with the DVD and the Digital Copy.

Both the video and the audio are near reference level material. The detail levels are spot on, the colors are amazing, etc., while there are no compression issues or signs of digital manipulation. While it is not a film that you would necessary think of as being visually stunning, there are a lot of shots of greenery and animals, and these just look better in high definition than urban settings do. Likewise, the audio isn't showy, there are more than enough ambient sounds and activity in the subwoofer, especially with animal sounds, to shine.

The Blu-ray does cost quite a bit more than the DVD, which is disappointing. You can't blame the studio, as the list price is $10 or 33% more than the DVD, but has the DVD at a bigger discount. That said, the exclusive extras and the A/V quality are enough to make the upgrade worth it.

The Verdict

We Bought a Zoo was released on Christmas weekend, which is the perfect time of year to release Oscar bait or a family film. This movie wasn't good enough to be Oscar bait, but it was one of the better family films from 2011 that I've seen. It's worth owning, while the Blu-ray Combo Pack is the better deal, even with's deeper discount on the DVD.

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Filed under: Video Review, We Bought a Zoo