We Bought a Zoo is located at the intersection of Feel Good Road and Predictable Lane. Matt Damon saps it up as the father who means to do well by his two children after their mother passes, but is hounded by impossibly over-the-top government bureaucrats, teenage angst, and Scarlett Johansson. Okay, the last one isn’t so bad.
In actuality, Benjamin Mee, whom Damon plays here, was looking for a new house so his mother could stay out of a nursing home, not because his wife died. But, a dead wife plays better on screen, so the writing team tweaked some things. That’s expected, forgivable, and tradition for true stories, although not so much when the script is produced purely to capitalize on known formulas.
Taking away the zoo, which here is utilized to create forced conflict rather than genuine emotion, Lifetime would not have taken on this story for its sappiness. Zoo is marketing 101, a family-oriented “go home happy” piece released right as families get together for the holidays. Bear in mind that it was released to theaters two days before Christmas in 2011. It fits the typical studio release mold.
There is genuine fun to be had with the routine crew of zookeeper misfits, from the love interest to the short-fused designer who wants nothing more than to punch their assigned USDA inspector. That ragtag bunch pops up whenever the film needs to generate a smile, or it just asks young Maggie Elizabeth Jones to say, “We Bought a Zoo!” Actually, everyone does that, if not always with the same child-like charisma.
Financial constraints burden all as the team nears a re-opening, Damon and co. seeking a reprieve from a city that reminds them of a lost mother and wife at every turn. Constant reconsideration of what he has led his family into notwithstanding, it pushes the family into a tighter, functional unit. Teenager Dylan (Colin Ford) has Lily (Elle Fanning) to help him through once he ditches the attitude, a plot thread that becomes obvious the second she appears on screen through a window. Johansson’s role is no less apparent.
Between it all are a bunch of animals used as cutaways for transitions, an emotional end of life cycle, and the beginning of another. The sanctuary is loaded with varied wildlife, giving the cast something else to focus on besides each other, even if the critters always feel like a background event, photographically and in the narrative.
Zoo’s final sin is forging ahead with peppy one-off characters, like a Home Depot employee who, shocking to no one, props up the closing moments like a ray of sunshine with her instant likeability. The film couldn’t possibly fail with a cliché like that, especially backed by an admittedly pleasing, moving score. It’s hard not to feel something here, even if you’re aware that it’s manipulation from the word go.
Fox’s AVC encode for Zoo is harmless, much like the material itself. Compression is clean and transparent to the source film stock, which produces a mild veneer of clean, resolved grain. Much of it is negated to the background where it barely carries a presence. At times, it’s light enough to mistake this for the clarity afforded to digital works.
Generated, superior fidelity produces exceptional, pure close-ups rife with extensive facial detail. Matt Damon’s textured face is on display for all consistently. There are no shortages of zooms on his emotional cues. The landscape itself, burgeoning with trees and tall grass, is exceptionally laid out to maximize the visuals. Cinematography, especially with the sun pouring through the leaves, is outstanding. Animals have their moments too, with fur, feathers, and markings beautifully refined.
Flushed flesh tones generate a general appeal of inviting warmth, the film rarely desaturated even during those key emotional scenes. Even then, some sprucing up of the color timing keeps the piece bright. Beneficial to the exteriors, greens glow and animal fur is striking. It’s hard to fault Zoo for much, aside from weaker than average black levels.
For whatever reason, the image loses zip at night when it needs it the most, failing to keep hold. Visuals gray out enough to be noticeable, a distinctive variation from the scenes elsewhere. Depth produced from those establishing shots is phenomenal, creating an expectation the few late evening shots cannot reach.
One of the first nights spent on the land has Damon standing outside, taking in the sound of animals calling. They speak up, enough to fill in the surrounds and the fronts with vibrancy. The mixing places Damon in the same space as the listening audience.
Zoo doesn’t have much use for the LFE, as if that would be surprising considering the type of sappy material on display. An exaggerated bear roar right at the halfway point will put it to work, effectively too, during a stand off. Licensed music will spruce things up too, spreading the mix around with life and fidelity. Dialogue balances with the bolder elements, and some audio effects will creep into the stereos for a bit of directional boosting.
Nearly 40-minutes of deleted/extended scenes begin this push into superior bonus features, stuff so good that the commentary with director Cameron Crowe, actor JB Smoove, and editor Mark Lovolsi seems passe. A gag reel is tremendously funny in spots.
We Shot a Zoo is the heart of it all though, a 75-minute, five part behind-the-scenes piece with wonderful production value and honest interviews. The Real Mee tells the true story with Benjamin Mee himself recalling how everything came about. Their Happy is Too Loud details a scoring session and with all of the artistic merit provided by the other pieces. A photo gallery is worth a peek even if you usually skip them.
Fox rounds it up with trailers and BD-Live.