As soon as you see the words “From the Director of Jerry Maguire” on the cover of We Bought a Zoo, you have to wonder if you’re about to step into a great big heaping pile of animal muck. Thankfully, though, such is not the case here. Well, not entirely, that is. The story here — based on a memoir of the same name by former British columnist Benjamin Mee — brings us the account of a widowed American father of two (Matt Damon), who packs up his children and belongings one day and moves into a charming, spacious new purchase in the country. As it turns out, the spot happens to be a zoo — a park that is in dire straits.
Though his recent acquisition thrills his seven-year-old daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones) to no end (kids love critters, as any parent can attest to), his 14-year-old son Dylan (Colin Ford) finds the relocation to be a burden. Meanwhile, between the upkeep of the facility and its non-human inhabitants, as well as the salary of his newfound employees, Benjamin finds out that running a zoo is not all it’s cracked up to be. He also has a hard time gaining the respect of the staff, such as the head keeper, young divorcée Kelly Foster (Scarlett Johansson), who is quite uncertain whether or not Benjamin is up to the unenviable task before him — both financially and emotionally.
Frankly, I’m a bit torn on how to absorb this one. While the movie is obviously trying to instill a sense of strong emotion upon us, it downright forces it upon us in some scenes. Crowe — along with co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna — turn Mee’s tale into a typical Hollywood drama, replete with impractical starry-eyed tones. Witness the chemistry between Damon and Johansson come to an inevitable and predictable spark — a sparkle of fantasy that extends to the character of Benjamin’s teenaged son Dylan, who decides to declare his love to Johansson’s 12-year-old cousin during a particularly painful moment of fairytale romance.
Now, providing moments like those don’t have you reaching for the “Eject” button, you might just find that We Bought a Zoo makes for great family viewing: you just have to overlook the fact that it is based (somewhat loosely) on a factual story and say “OK, this is your typical Cameron Crowe tale.” Crowe commands a fine performance from his lead actor, who delivers his part with sincerity — as do most of the other players here. True to Crowe’s motif, the film features a mixed soundtrack of contemporary and classic songs, as well as an incidental score by Icelandic musician Jón Þór "Jónsi" Birgisson.
Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment brings us this Zoo to Blu in a stunning High-Def presentation that is absolutely breathtaking, with an equally stunning 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio lossless soundtrack (there’s also an optional family-friendly audio track in case the language of the already PG-rated movie is too harsh for ultra-sensitive households). Special features abound here, including an audio commentary by Crowe, who is joined by editor Mark Livolsi and actor J.B. Smoove (whose part in the film is pretty minor, and makes you wonder where the star performers are); several deleted/extended scenes; a gag reel; and a number of in-depth behind-the-scenes featurettes that cover everything from the making-of the film to the real Benjamin Mee himself.
Even if you don’t like the way the movie is constructed, you’ll at least be able to appreciate Mee’s real story.