WE BOUGHT A ZOO – Blu-ray review

“I expected it to be more about animals.”

My wife said it, but we were all thinking it. Though the family agreed that “We Bought a Zoo” was a solid film, it also felt like a California version of “The Descendants”—with the fun concept of a family buying a zoo more than balanced by the near-constant weight of a man and his offspring coping with the recent loss of their wife and mother.

“We Bought a Zoo” is based on the story of the Mee family—Benjamin, Katherine, and their two small children—who bought the rundown Dartmoor Wildlife Park in Devon, England and moved there, with the dream of fixing it up so that it could reopen again as a zoo. Sadly, Katherine died before that dream could be realized.

In “We Bought a Zoo,” Matt Damon plays Ben, and the idea to buy the zoo comes to him after his Katherine has already passed. Typical of Hollywood, one of the kids was promoted to “teenager” so there could be plenty of angst, attitude, and a communication gap between parent and child, while the other could remain cute and naive.

According to one bonus feature, we have Damon to thank for the heavy reminder of loss; he wanted every scene to be about missing Katherine, director Cameron Crowe said. Too bad Crowe listened. Anyone who’s experienced a loss that great knows that you never forget, and screenwriters Crowe and Aline Brosh McKenna didn’t have to be so obvious. We would have gotten it. As it is, we’re fed a formulaic Hollywood version of a feel-good story:  Ben just happens to buy a zoo that is run by an attractive 28 year old head zookeeper (Scarlett Johansson) with no social life, and so you know something’s going to happen there; moody Dylan (Colin Ford) is angry at losing his mom and moving out into the sticks far away from his friends, but his consolation is a teenage girl who’s working at the zoo (Elle Fanning as Lily). Even the level-headed brother (Thomas Haden Church) who tries to talk Ben out of this misadventure sets the stage for a new relationship between the two men. And the girl, played by Maggie Elizabeth Jones? She gets all the animals.

It’s the way Hollywood works, and for most of the film we frankly don’t mind. Heck, we don’t even care when the grand, feel-good ending is unveiled and logic seems as far away as the wildlife park that Rosemoor is based upon. That’s because the story itself is a good one, and no amount of formulaic tweaking could keep Benjamin Mee’s memoir from making it as an entertaining and rewarding family film.

Which is to say, despite its predictability and the pall of loss, “We Bought a Zoo” is still very good family entertainment.

I should add, though, that if you have sensitive children who resist watching “Old Yeller” because of what they’ve heard happens, well, one animal needs to be put away—but it’s nowhere near as dramatic as the foaming-at-the-mouth implied headshot we got in that Disney family film, which traumatized a generation of children.

All of the cast seem comfortable with their roles, and given the layer of sadness that seems applied like too much sunscreen, viewers will be especially grateful for the assortment of minor characters who come with the zoo—especially the boisterous and sometimes cheerfully violent MacCready (Angus Macfayden), who wants to do personal harm to the inspector responsible for giving them the go-ahead to open (John Michael Higgins). In fact, it’s the cast chemistry that helps us get through the heaviness of the film, just as they help each other in the film.

“We Bought a Zoo” comes to Blu-ray via an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50-gig disc. Presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, it looks absolutely gorgeous in 1080p. Colors are bright, detail is pop-out, no matter what the lighting. Skin-tones are natural. Edges are sharply defined. And there are no visible artifacts. It’s a pleasure to watch.

The audio is almost as good. The bass is lacking in a number of scenes, but the clarity is consistently strong and there’s a nice rich timbre—despite the fact that it’s hardly what you’d call a dynamic soundtrack. There’s enough rear-speaker action to remind you you’re watching a film in surround sound, but there’s a lot of dialogue, and so the center channel does most of the heavy lifting.

“We Bought a Zoo” is rated PG for language and some thematic elements, but parents who are careful about the language exposure will be glad that there’s a Dove-approved “English Family-Friendly Audio Track” which is looped to eliminate the offensive words. Additional audio options are French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.

In addition to a DVD and Digital Copy contained on two more discs, one neat bonus feature is child’s ticket to a member zoo or aquarium from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which expires on June 30, 2012.

Curiously, an audio commentary with Crowe and editor Mark Livolsi also includes actor J.B. Smoove, who’s hilarious as the realtor who helps the family find their zoo, but doesn’t appear after that. It’s a pretty dry and standard commentary apart from his comedy.

The best bonus features are “We Shot a Zoo” (76 min.) that covers the making of the film in five parts (including some script read-throughs and the building and construction of a zoo where none existed) and “The Real Mee” (29 min.), in which Benjamin Mee tells his story. Then there’s a sometimes funny gag reel (7 min.), theatrical trailer, and a huge amount of deleted/extended scenes—20 of them, which run close to 40 minutes long.

Bottom line:
“We Bought a Zoo” doesn’t have much in the way of surprises, but feel-good movies are often like that. A few more animal encounters and fewer grief sessions would have been nice, but it’s still a solid family film.