Film Review: Zoo

Fact-based family adventure of three youngsters in World War II Belfast who try to keep a baby elephant safe puts the melancholy poetry of Irish storytelling to beautiful, highly affecting use.
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Old Yeller emotion awaits in this Northern Ireland family film based on real events in 1941 Belfast, in which a baby elephant was saved from destruction during the German bombing raids of World War II. While that historical pachyderm stays safe, Zoo retains enough hardship and wartime tragedy to strip away any sugarcoating from the logline "Three kids band together to rescue a zoo animal."

Despite a budget of just a reported £2.8 million, or roughly $3.75 million, this second theatrical feature by writer-director Colin McIvor carries a look and scope equal to its outsized emotional impact. From golden, pastoral moments to the haunting, visceral imagery of the city being bombed, McIvor, honed by his primary work as a TV-commercial director, is a storyteller of economy and skill—letting scenes play out long enough to sink in yet never dawdling, and making time for such grace notes as a movie theatre showing Buster Keaton's silent classic The General, a brother's loving relationship to a sibling who's different, or a bride in wedding white, running through the blue-hued light of a nighttime bombing raid.

With children's-adventure classicism, McIvor gives us a trio of early-teen schoolchildren to whom adults are mostly either glowering authority figures, such as Belfast Zoological Gardens security guard Charlie (Toby Jones), or eccentric recluses like elderly Denise Austin (Penelope Wilton). Young Tom Hall (Art Parkinson, who played Rickon Stark on HBO's "Game of Thrones") is a bit more adult than most of his peers, in part because of his sturdy and loving dad (Damian O'Hare), the zoo's veterinarian, who's caring for new addition Buster the baby elephant. Tom's relative maturity puts him at odds with school bullies Vernon (Glen Nee) and Pete (Ian O'Reilly), and his plight draws in Jane (Emily Flain), a dark and brooding girl with an alcoholic father. His own “da” is sent off to war.

As in real life, the Belfast Blitz prompts the Ministry of Public Security to order the local constabulary to kill—fortunately off-camera—any "potentially dangerous animals" that might get loose during the shelling. Tom wants to save Buster, and together with Jane and Pete, who proves less menacing when you get to know him, the youngsters stage an escape. But where do you hide a baby elephant? In the enclosed backyard of weird old Mrs. Austin, an animal lover who also isn't so bad, it turns out (and who is very loosely based on the younger real-life zoo employee who had kept the real-life elephant Sheila safe).

Isolated people make human connections, open themselves up to place trust in others, and learn to embrace fragile life—not one bit of it feeling corny or contrived, thanks to McIvor's sensitive eye for the plain realities of war. He gives it a very real presence, and scenes such as one of children crying during a bombing drill, wearing gas masks, may be a bit too intense for very young audiences. Like classic children's literature from Black Beauty to The Velveteen Rabbit, the truth is unvarnished and death is a part of life. But Zoo never tips the balance too far in either direction, and the result has the makings of a family film for the ages.

Kudos also to a beautifully stirring score—which does get a little twee and bouncy in Charlie's musical cues early on but quickly recovers—as well as to newcomer Flain, who is soulful and heartbreaking in her first screen role.

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