Cameron Crowe wrenches your heart with kids, animals and tragedy
Based on the true story of a newspaper columnist who bought a zoo in England to bring it back from the brink, We Bought a Zoo transplants the zoo to California, and in Disney-like fashion, makes it a single-dad tale, as adventuring writer Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon) tries to find a new home to help stabilize life for his kids. The home he finds happens to be connected to a failing zoo, a challenge he can't help but take on, hoping the experience will bring his troubled family together. Unfortunately, the cost of fixing the zoo is bankrupting him, and his brooding son Dylan (Colin Ford) is being driven away from his dad by having to live in the country, far from his friends.
For Mee, life at the zoo isn't all bad, as the lead zookeeper, Kelly (Scarlett Johansson) isn't hard on the eyes (even if he's not ready to move on), and his seven-year-old daughter Rosie (the adorable Maggie Elizabeth Jones) is happy amongst the animals. Even Dylan finds a friend in farm-girl Lily (Elle Fanning) who falls for him quickly. The money crunch threatens to derail everything though, and Mee's brother Duncan (Thomas Hayden Church) tries to talk him out of chasing this costly dream. The path the film takes is pretty standard us against the world material, but it's entertaining along the way.
Much of the credit goes to the cast, which is one of the most appealing you could pull together, from the leads (especially Damon, who plays average guy charm like it's a cello and he's Yo-Yo Man) to support roles for Angus Macfadden, John Michael Higgins and Patrick Fugit (returning to a Crowe movie for the first time since Almost Famous.) Under the command of Crowe, everything comes together like an emotional smoothie, with no lumps other than those that might catch in your throat. Crowe is a master at creating touching, nostalgic-looking moments, and he's got them in spades here, aided by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto. Unfortunately, the story doesn't offer up any real surprises, so you're just along for the ride, enjoying the sights until you arrive exactly where you expect.
Despite that, Crowe does manage to throw in a few moments that will stick with you when the final credits roll, and they are dripping with pathos, to the point where one scene was actually shocking in its emotional punch. Unfortunately, it's not well integrated into the story, and as a result feels like an add-on in an attempt to get one more pull on the audience's heartstrings.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 presentation gives everything its moment to shine, be it the clear, center-focused dialogue or the atmospheric sound effects, which get definitely play when in the zoo. Of course, since this is a Crowe film, the music gets plenty of focus, whether it's Jonsi's score or the soundtrack featuring Temple of the Dog and Tom Petty. The surround speakers do a nice job of boosting the music, filling the room, when they aren't putting you in the middle of a zoo.
There's also a 23-minute featurette "It's a Zoo," which focuses on the animals that worked on the film, via interviews with their trainers and the cast. It's nicely in-depth, covering lots of angles about filming with bears, monkeys and more, though it would have been nice to get some perspective from Crowe, who is seen just briefly in the piece.
There's also a sneak peek for the next movie in the Ice Age series, which takes the form of a short film following Scrat's continuing hunt for acorns.
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