Colin McIvor’s family-friendly third feature stars Art Parkinson (‘Game of Thrones’) and Penelope Wilton (‘Downton Abbey’) as animal lovers on a high-stakes rescue mission.
The story of a group of plucky kids saving a baby elephant from German bombing raids in World War II-era Belfast might seem like the stuff of time-travel fantasy, but Colin McIvor’s winning family-friendly adventure is based on actual events during the blitz of Northern Ireland’s capital city. A lovingly crafted film with a big heart, Zoo deserves to be much more widely exhibited than its modest resources might allow, but VOD and streaming opportunities should help build an enthusiastic fanbase following theatrical release.
Growing up in Belfast prior to WWII, 12-year-old Tom (Art Parkinson) has always hoped to follow in his father George’s (Damian O’Hare) footsteps to become a keeper at the slightly tatty city zoo, known as the “Bellevue Zoological Gardens.” For a boy not yet out of short pants, nothing can inspire his love of animals more than a visit with the chimpanzees, giraffes and solo Barbary lion as he tags along behind his dad. The highlight of 1941 for both of them turns out to be the arrival of a juvenile Asian elephant, with Tom claiming naming rights to dub him “Buster.” The petite pachyderm’s training has only just begun when George gets called up with the British Army, leaving Tom and his mom to deal with the deteriorating security situation in the city.
Worried about Buster’s condition in his dad’s absence, Tom sneaks past snippy security guard Charlie (Toby Jones) only to discover the elephant in the charge of hostile veterinarian Jake (Stephen Hagan). His concerns intensify when the Germans begin bombing Belfast and city authorities order the elimination of the zoo’s large carnivores, worried they might escape during another air raid. Realizing that Buster could be next, Tom quickly sets aside preoccupations about another German attack and develops a strategy to rescue Buster, only passingly aware of the apparent absurdity of his scheme.
Belfast native McIvor based his script on the experiences of local resident Denise Austin (played in the film by Penelope Wilton), who cared for the zoo’s orphaned juvenile elephant at her nearby home during the German attacks. In McIvor’s adaptation, Austin becomes a reclusive animal lover who supports Tom’s daring plan, along with his grade-school friends, reluctant bully Pete (Ian O’Reilly) and sensitive Jane (Emily Flain), the neglected daughter of an alcoholic father. Together, this ragtag team faces a daunting task evading security guard Charlie and hiding a baby elephant undetected in the middle of Belfast during a chaotic military offensive.
As unlikely as the plot may sound, McIvor makes it work with a heartfelt storyline emphasizing the importance of family and friendship, as well as the virtues of pluck and resourcefulness, along with a major dose of thrills. A more commercial approach might have easily come off as manipulative, but the film’s authenticity remains grounded in the port city’s gritty locales and consistently appealing Anglo-Irish cast.
Top-billed Parkinson, who has demonstrated his affinity for period material with a recurring role on Game of Thrones, convincingly plays Tom as both vulnerable following the departure of his dad while at the same time determined to protect George’s legacy at the zoo. Wilton has the key adult role, gracefully revealing eccentric Mrs. Austin’s relatablity by gradually disclosing the depth of her loss as the result of an earlier war.
Jones for a change turns up in a smaller part that’s nonetheless unfailingly integral to the plot, anchoring a few of the film’s more comic scenes. The youthful ensemble delivers their share of lighter moments as well, with Flain excelling as the troubled Jane in her first major role.
Along with his outstanding cast, McIvor relies on immersive period details and locations, as well as tense scenes of the Belfast bombings, to re-create a believable backdrop for what Tom almost understatedly refers to as “the most unforgettable year of my life.”
Production companies: Piccadilly Pictures, Wee Buns Films, Ripple World Productions
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Cast: Art Parkinson, Penelope Wilton, Toby Jones, Damian O’Hare, Emily Flain, Ian O’Reilly
Director-writer: Colin McIvor
Producers: Katy Jackson, John Leslie, Dominic Wright, Jacqueline Kerrin
Executive producers: Christopher Figg, Robert Whitehouse, Lisa Lambert, Kevin Jackson
Director of photography: Damien Elliott
Production designer: John Leslie
Costume designer: Susan Scott
Editors: Brian Philip Davis, Chris Gill
Music: Mark Thomas
Rated PG, 96 minutes