Blu-ray Review: Cameron Crowe's WE BOUGHT A ZOO

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic

"It sounds like it's the worst movie when you pitch it. I usually, say 'It's about a family that buys a zoo!', and just when their eyes begin to glaze over, I say, 'well, it's a Cameron Crowe movie!'" - Matt Damon

There are films, the recent release of Chinatown is brought immediate to mind, where the title is sufficiently esoteric as to belie the conceit of the film's plot. There are those that go part way to accounting what we're going to see on screen, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey, or even Black Hole. Then there are those films that the title sums up, for better but much more often for worse, the entirely of the film's scope. We Bought A Zoo takes this summation to a whole other level, employing not once but a half dozen times the hoary, trailer-baiting script obscenity of having the title spoken as dialogue, at least twice by the preternaturally puppy-like young girl.

I don't need to tell you the plot, it's right there, out in the open. There are lion, tigers and bears (oh my!), there's a widower with two kids who takes midlife crisis to a whole new level, and a band of misfits that are even more clichéd than the entourage from an animated child's film.

The sick irony about the preposterous plot (a neutered version of the real life events that took place in the UK) was the real-life horror that took place at the end of last year in Ohio. When an American hobby zookeeper decided to shoot himself in the head after opening all his cages, the end result was the extermination of a number of the escaped beasts, including several endangered tigers. Zoos as mere places to showcase caged animals (as opposed to centers for pedagogy and community outreach) are problematic at the best of times, but to have this type of responsibility granted to someone entirely ignorant of what's required to run such a locale just because an individual thinks they're qualified to do so is downright agravating. A wandering bear done for comedic reasons in this film echoes the incompetence of many others who have claimed they can run such a venue with their exotic "pets", only to suffer from the obscene consequences of starvation or death for their captive creatures.

In Crowe's version, there's zero sense of real drama. The USDA inspector is mere comic relief, the vets on call simply there to add to the tension regarding funds. I'm no animal rights crusader, but the stupidity of this private institution boggles imagination, and the overwrought metaphor (knowing when to let go of a sick cat equals watching wife die) makes the already banal become nearly unbearable.

There's an escalation of awful as the film progresses, piling saccharine moment atop one another until it feels like the script was churned out by some software coded to feed pabulum to someone's idea of an "average" filmgoer. It's the worst kind of circus, animals paraded without spectacle, tears cried without the feelings being earned, and the most annoyingly predictable narrative tract that makes a soap opera look like labyrinthine plotting.

I grant the film a competent, two minute long sequence, where Damon shows us how damn good he can be in other films. There's a genuine confrontation with his son that's both honest and compelling. Then it all flies away quickly, 'till we're left, again, wallowing in the giant amounts of shit that one can only assume are piled up behind the buildings we see at the Zoo. Even ScarJo's pouty face can't save her in what must be the worst performance of her career.

Alas, no longer will "it's a Cameron Crowe" movie be sufficient to account for a film that looks this bad from both title and trailer - I assure you, in this case the Crowe-isms make it worse. I loves me Jónsi, and the spattering of Classic Rock tracks, but it feels so damn forced and out of place that it somehow magically lessens some of his earlier works. I suggest that Crowe and co. go rent Descendents to see how a film can be both graceful and moving while still being quirky, all without succumbing to each and every false move that We Bought A Zoo finds itself continuously groping towards.

The disc

Since the time of the great Greek philosophers, the question has been asked - Can excellent supplemental material on a Blu-Ray make up for a truly egregious film? Can one justify buying a disc for the bonus material alone? I'm not cheating here, this isn't some bait and switch where there's the inclusion about some other topic that'd make the disc more exciting. No, for the most part these supplemental materials are all about the film you've just suffered through seeing. Can I really suggest that you still pick up the disc?

Read on to find out.

There are no real complaints about the disc from a technical perspective. The picture is perfectly fine, with Rodrigo [Brokeback Mountain, Babel, Amores perros] Prieto's photography shining through. The sound mix is also more than adequate, Jónsi's swirling score mixing well with the roars of the animals and dialogue of the cast.

Supplemental Material

The centerpiece of the disc is a 1 hour 15 minute doc on the making of the film. It's well done, objectively, yet there's still the same lack of balance that you often get with any making-of piece that's constructed while the film's in production - Naturally, almost always the best making-of docs are those looking back after a period of time, with elements shot on set used to buttress that story.  

We learn about Crowe's use of music on set, about building the massive Zoo in the middle of nowhere, and the interaction of the actor's with a director they seem very happy to be working with. Damon is slightly more open than most of the other participants, hinting at the challenges that a film of this tone will be to pull off. The middle section, which focusses on the animal trainers, is certainly the most enjoyable, as we meet a pretty diverse group of characters that work with these creatures in a variety of situations. Equally pleasing was to see the author of the original book and his family on set, putting into perspective his own real story with that of the inflated, Hollywood steambag that the film has become.  

There's a 17 minute doc called "Their Happy is too Loud", detailing the creation and recording of the score by Sigur Rós' angelic voiced Jónsi. I quite adore most of Jónsi's work, but felt that the sunshine score with the twee dialogue was all a bit to much (contrast this with 127 Hours, where the triumphal use of Sigur Rós' music causes goosebumps, so well-earned is the musical eruption).

Still, the sweeping score one of the more pleasant elements of the film. In fact, it's so lovely and ethereal that it makes Crowe's inclusion of his usual Pearl Jam and Neil Young tracks feel contrived and jarring in this setting.

There's some especially awkward moments when Crowe tries to ascribe his own interpretations on the music on an ever reticent Jónsi. When there's some wanking on a little Casio, and Crowe picks up a guitar and manages to contribute little, it becomes even more uncomfortable.

Cameron Crowe is joined by editor Mark Livolsi and actor JB Smoove [sic] for the audio commentary. There's a good five minute intro against black as they banter, making for sticking with it through the titles even more of an ambitious undertaking. Smoove's seeing the film for the first time, and uses the time to do a little bit of comedy shtick. Crowe and Livolsi manage to interject a few moments of actual making-of goodness, but not much that wasn't already included in the docs.

A seven minute Gag Reel is is also included for those interested in such things, but you do get to hear more line readings of the title, with Damon sarcastically saying, "let's get every character to say that!"

The disc includes a whopping 40 minutes of deleted and extended scenes. There's little more than trims and extensions of existing scenes, which the extension of Crowe's commentary bears out.

The most engaging doc by far is entitled "The Real Mee", a look at the family that was the inspiration for the film. The quiet confidence exhibited in the telling of the real story makes the Hollywoodization even more insulting to the real work undergone in the UK. The challenges are explicitly outlined, but so too is the sense of humility that seems completely lacking in the feature film.

Trading a ragtag band of stereotypes that populate the feature, we meet capable professionals that are more aware than anyone the travails of such an undertaking, yet are committed to do it anyway. Where the film makes Zoo ownership seem like the purview of the dilettante, here we find someone obviously quite intelligent that has surrounded himself with a capable team in order to develop something extraordinary.

Finally, there are a series of photos taken by the onsite still photographer.

In Conclusion

So, in the end, it it worth buying a disc that has extensive supplemental materials? Does the inclusion of one fine, 20 minute documentary about the actual family warrant you picking up the disc?

I'm afraid the answer is no. I'm not sure the example defines the rule, but in this case, no amount of well produced, even compelling supplemental material can make me recommend you add this disc to your collection.

It may be of interest to those still in love with Crowe's heavy handed storytelling, but to me what he have here is one of the more barbaric, hamfisted examples of Hollywood taking a sweet, true story and glomming on a turgid romance, slapstick incompetence, and precocious child bleating out the title of the film like some trained ape. I applaud FOX for spending the resources on crafting interesting documentary material, but it does little to endear me to the project as a whole.

The disc notably leaves out the complete BBC doc that brought the story to Crowe's attention (clips of it are shown in the main documentary) - I've been made interested enough in the true story to seek it out, which may be the only real success that the story of the film has brought forth. I assure you the film is even worse than you may have feared, the more than adequate supplemental materials doing little more than reemphasizing how misguided the project was from the get. A waste of fine talent for the sake of an easy-to-digest tale, I do not advise being the one to proudly exclaim, "We bought We Bought a Zoo!"


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