Saturday, January 21, 2012

New Release: Animal Edition

This is a special occasion.  Two new releases at once.  And both deal with animals, War Horse and We Bought a Zoo.  I won't be surprised if War Horse gets nominated for some Oscars next week, but I doubt anything will be said about We Bought a Zoo until it gets released on DVD in a few months.  But really, these movies aren't terribly far apart in content or appeal to the average viewer.  One treads a bit more on the comedic side, and the other takes advantage of spectacular visuals to tell its story.  And while their triumphs differ quite a bit, the faults with both films are remarkably similar.

I'll start with the faults and the describe what I liked about each film individually.  The fault lies mostly with the great big gaps in the story-telling.  I'm not saying they should have held me by the hand to get from point A through the end, but I think both films fall short by setting up a rich, deep structure and then failing to follow through on the promise that the film begins.  Both films end with heart lifting triumph (though not as perfect and sweet as you might expect, there are deaths that will upset you) and overcome implausible scenarios.  But, the second act in both films, once we've left the original premise, flounders around a bit, unsure of exactly where to go.  But in neither film is this horribly problematic, it just keeps the film from being really great.

Okay, War Horse.  The story of Joey, a thoroughbred bought to be a plow horse. The bond between Joey and the little boy who buys him is the driving force for the film - will they be able to stay together.  When WWI is declared, Joey is sold to be an officer's horse.  We follow Joey through the war, changing hands and enduring horror, watching him be afraid and know fun and even joy.  I won't spoil the ending, just to say it's really a beautifully shot scene, which unfortunately doesn't fit well with the coloring of the rest of the film.  As a stand alone scene it's pretty amazing, but it just seems out of place.  I really, really liked Joey.  If it's possible for a horse to be a good actor, he is.  Spielberg did a great job getting the horse to show human-like emotion throughout.  There aren't a lot of stand out human actors, particularly in the middle of the film, but as a group they do keep the story going.

As a film about the horrors of war, it's very successful - this war SUCKED.  Does that make for a good film - I'm conflicted about that.  There was something better done about showing the problems of war in Saving Private Ryan and War Horse, for all it's softness about following a horse, tips the balance a bit far in the wrong direction about how awful humans can be during war.  Watching that kind of terror in the eyes of the soldiers and horror watching what they do and what is done to them might not be something everyone needs to see more than once.  I tend to enjoy my films best if I can't wait to see them again.  In that respect, War Horse was unsuccessful.  So I'd give the film a 3.5 of 5.  Very very good in some respects, but a near zero rewatchability.  But that's just me.

As for We Bought a Zoo, Matt Damon is the recently widowed father of a 14-year old boy, Dylan, and a 7-year old girl Rosie (scene stealer Mackenzie Elizabeth Jones).  After Dylan gets expelled from school for creating artwork that depicts death and stealing, Damon decides to move the kids out of the city.  He also needs to escape all of the memories of his late wife.  They end up buying a perfect house, that also comes with an Animal Park that is nearly kaput.  Damon's character is an adventure writer and thinks getting this park back on track will be an adventure, and Rosie of course loves it.  Dylan is still struggling but befriends the niece, Lily (an remarkably annoying Elle Fanning, see her in Super 8 instead) of the head zookeeper Kelly (Scarlett Johannsen).  The movie does a good job giving us a goal to cheer for - passing the upcoming inspection before they can open, and keeping it all from becoming ridiculous.

I've always been a fan of zoos.  I've visited small zoos in Panama, Mexico, Kenya, and Zanzibar.  We Bought a Zoo didn't do anything improbable and kept well within all the kooky standards of animal welfare for my very critical eye.  I was nervous going in that they'd pretend that this tiny zoo could have all kinds of exotic species and be really cheap.  But the movie makes everything really clear and above board - acknowledging their struggles, and not pretending too much.  The supporting cast isn't as strong as the story really requires - they have some good actors - Thomas Hadyn Church as Damon's accountant brother (the funniest character besides the animals), Patrick Fugit as the handyman, Angus McFadyn as another keeper, Carla Gallo (from "Bones") as the nosy bookkeeper and John Michael Higgins as the Inspector.  But sadly, the story isn't written well enough for any of them to really shine.  Overall, still a pleasure to watch.  4 of 5 stars/lambs.

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