Zoo (2017), written and directed by Colin McIvor, is a well-crafted British historical war movie and children’s movie, inspired by a true story, set against the German air raid bombings of Belfast, Northern Ireland during the second World War. 

The film dramatizes the story of a young boy, Tom Hall, and his motley crew of school chums, motivated by compassion, to save Buster, a baby elephant from being destroyed against a backdrop of a city under siege by war, and the lush bucolic setting of the Zoo grounds and Irish countryside. 

The film opens with an aerial shot of the industrial port city of Belfast with voice-over narrated by the adult voice of Tom Hall describing the turbulent times the city and its people faced in 1941 when war visited its shores, and then cuts to a wide angle shot of an interior scene with the young protagonist, and his father in the background, and then to a medium shot of the young boy smiling ear to ear, and then to an aerial shot of a ship travelling in water carrying a special cargo in a large wooden crate.   The scene fades to black. 

The child actors are phenomenal and make the film.   Art Parkinson plays Tom Hall, the 10-year- old protagonist of the film, who leads the rescue.   Emily Flain plays Jane Berry, his co-conspirator who helps carry out his rescue plan, and Ian O’Reilly plays Pete, the ‘muscle’.   Jane and Pete are part of Tom’s motley crew of rescuers to save Buster, the baby elephant.  James Stockdale plays Mickey, Pete’s brother who is swept up in the event and provides comic relief.   The talented and acclaimed English actor Penelope Wilton plays Mrs. Austin, an eccentric woman with a love for animals, who joins in to save Buster, and hides him in her backyard.  The child actors give poignant portrayals as does Penelope Wilton.   The motif of compassion runs through the film and is one of the unifying threads that hold the film together. 

The film is peppered with strong performances by a supportive cast of incredibly talented actors including Toby Jones who plays Charlie, the Zoo’s screwball, fastidious security guard who nevertheless surprises the children with his act of kindness.  Ian McElhinney plays Mr. Shawcross, the unbearable and disagreeable Zookeeper, and plays his role to a tee.  Glen Nee plays Vernon, the nasty school bully, and menace of Tom and his efforts to keep Buster safe.

The film is situated within a historical period giving it a depth and complexity.  Thornton juxtaposes the narrative of saving Buster with the reality of war.  McIvor weaves together many visual elements to make an interesting film.  Close ups and medium angle shots are interspersed with wide angle shots, and aerial shots.   He incorporates archival footage of Adolf Hitler and his henchmen, recreates radio broadcasts reporting on the war, includes a dirigible, and recreates the bombing of Belfast, all of which create the allusion of war.   One of the most beautiful scenes in the film is the arrival of the baby elephant at the port of Belfast and being led through the streets of Belfast, with loads of people in tow, to its new home, the Bellevue Zoo.   Another is Tom and his father, George Hall, played by Damian O’Hare, the Zoo’s veterinary, feeding the lemurs, penguins, and giraffes.  Some of the most disturbing scenes in the film include the destruction of zoo animals seen through Tom’s eyes, and the air bombings of Belfast, and its subsequent aftermath, and destruction.  Some of the most tender scenes in the film are watching the children and Mrs. Austin care for Buster, and when Mrs. Austin reaches out to Jane showing her kindness and understanding, and combs out her disheveled hair. 

I enjoyed Zoo and I think you’ll like it for it’s an inspiring story about heroism and compassion and about doing the right thing.  Buster, the baby elephant, Tom, Jane, Pete, Mickey and Mrs. Austin will pull at your heartstrings.  Do see it for you won’t be disappointed!

IndieCan Entertainment releases Zoo on Sunday, March 4 at 1:30 P.M. at Carlton Cinemas

Tickets can be purchased here

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