The Republic of Ireland was neutral during WWII, but since it is part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland very definitely fought and sacrificed in the struggle against Axis tyranny. In fct, they paid a fearsome price during the Belfast Blitz. Compounding the tragedy, the civil defense authorities determined the Belfast Zoo’s predatory animals had to be euthanized, lest they be released into the streets by errant bombs. However, the son of a conscripted zoo veterinarian hatches a scheme to save its prized elephant in Colin McIvor’s Zoo (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York International Children’s Film Festival.
In many ways, the based (pretty faithfully) on a true story Zoo shames us for our hip, postmodern cynicism, starting right from the beginning, when Buster the pachyderm’s arrival procession through the streets of Belfast captures the city’s imagination (in a marvelously directed sequence). Alas, their enthusiasm will be quickly dampened by the Blitz. When his father is called up, Tom Hall loses his free access to the zoo, but he is still willing to pay. Unfortunately, there will be little left to see, when the staff starts putting the animals down.
Although Buster has a temporary reprieve, it is only a matter of time before his number comes up. Refusing to accept fate, Hall forges an alliance with Jane Berry, a quirky girl he sort of has a crush for, and Pete. the lunky but not so bad mate of the school bully. He definitely has a crush on Berry. They actually manage to pull off the elephant heist (thanks to the grouchy guard Charlie looking the other way), but they will need the help of widowed Denise Austin to shelter Buster.
Everyone considered Austin the neighborhood’s crazy cat lady, but there is more to her than that. Yet, McIvor is never heavy-handed when it comes to teaching moments. That said, there is a moment of heart-breaking tragedy that comes as a complete shock in a film with this many kids and animals. Nevertheless, you have to give him credit depicting the true nature of war—it’s absolutely no fun whatsoever.
Penelope Wilton (Cousin Matthew’s mother in Downton Abbey) is tremendous as Ms. Austin, taking small telling moments and just destroying us with them. Toby Jones is probably the biggest name attached to the film, but he also overachieves, wringing all kinds of poignant dignity out of the potentially cliched role of Charlie the zoo guard. The primary trio of youngsters, Art Parkinson, Emily Flain, and Ian O’Reilly are all impressively expressive and disciplined (frankly, Hall can be a bit of a doormat at times, but that is more of a problem with the script than Parkinson’s portrayal). Yet, it is Amy Huberman who quietly lowers the boom on viewers, as Hall’s mother Emily, an understandably overworked nurse.