"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
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
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
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
, 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.
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
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
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
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
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