Director: Colin McIvor
Writer: Colin McIvor
Stars: Toby Jones, Art Parkinson, Penelope Wilton
Being a native, I try to see and support every film that is made in Northern Ireland. This often proves difficult as so many of them get very limited releases and are hard to track down, but thankfully Zoo was playing at my local Movie House and got the quality screening it deserved.
The plot, as unlikely as it sounds, is based on a true story. During World War II after the first major attack on Belfast by the Luftwaffe, it was decided by the powers-that-be that all animals which could possibly be a danger to the public if a further bombing inadvertently released them, were to be put down by the army. So young Tom Hall (Art Parkinson), with the help of a couple of schoolmates, decides to save the zoo’s most recent acquisition, a baby elephant named Buster, and hide it in the back yard of strange old Mrs. Austin (Penelope Wilton).
The film recreates 1941 more authentically than most blockbusters with much larger budgets. In these period films they tend to either concentrate on the broad strokes; the CG battle scenes, or the small stuff, but zoo succeeds in both. The cramped interiors of the small houses and handmade clothes ring just as true as when we see a fleet of German bombers filling the skies above Belfast. It’s a chilling sight to see, especially from the PoV of children.
This is very much a family film. There’s great fun to be had as the children outwit the adults searching for the elephant at every turn, and though they’re all from very different backgrounds, they form friendships because they’re working towards a common goal, which is a great message for all kids.
I should warn you all about dust associated with Zoo. Several times during this screening I got something in my eyes. They watered quite a bit and I had to sniff and wipe my cheeks more than once. I remember a similar type of dust being present at the beginning of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe when crying mothers are loading their children onto trains bound for the country. If you feel you might be susceptible to the same sort of dust, I suggest you bring some tissues with you to the cinema.
I suppose if you wanted to get all symbolic about things you could read a lot into this story – does the elephant represent the hope for peace; kept alive by a younger generation while the adults do their best to destroy it? I’m sure some viewers will see these themes purely because it is set in Northern Ireland. Whether that is what writer/ director Colin McIvor intended is up for debate. With or without subtext, there’s still enough going on to keep audiences of all ages interested.
I was just glad to see a film based in this country that told an uplifting, funny and occasionally heart-breaking tale with universal themes that the whole world can relate to and enjoy. Let’s have some more of this and less of the depressing stuff.