Film review: Zoo movie 'highly recommended for kids and elephant aficionados'

Writer/director Colin McIvor's movie Zoo takes the true story of Belfast's Second World War 'elephant angel' and turns it into a kids' adventure film starring Art Parkinson. David Roy packed his trunk for this family-friendly tale

Art Parkinson and Nellie the elephant star in Zoo

HUMANS weren't the only casualties in the Belfast Blitz during the Second World War: In 1941, 33 animals at Bellevue Zoo were ordered to be killed lest they escape from their enclosures into the wilds of north Belfast during air raids.

Happily, zookeeper Denise Austin decided to protect a baby African elephant called Sheila by taking her home each night to her back yard at Whitewell Road.

The elephant would bed down in their garage for the night before accompanying Sheila back to the zoo the next morning: an arrangement which worked perfectly well for 18 months until Sheila chased an aggressive dog into a neighbour's garden, destroying a fence in the process and alerting the zoo authorities to her nocturnal adventures.

These swiftly came to an end, though the miraculously still employed Denise then began to visit Sheila in her enclosure during the night, rubbing her ears to keep her calm as the bombs fell over the city.

It's enough to bring a tear to your eye, and sure enough there's heartwarming human-animal bonding aplenty in Zoo, writer-director Colin McIvor's film inspired by Denise and Sheila's wartime high jinks.

Having already inspired Michael Monpurgo's hit book An Elephant In My Garden, which swapped Belfast for Dresden, the original history seemed ripe for a movie treatment.

However, the Antrim film-maker has taken further creative licence with the facts of the 'elephant angel' story: Denise (Penelope Wilton) is downgraded (and indeed demoted from Belfast's first female zookeeper to eccentric animal lover) to a supporting role in this family adventure drama, in which it's a quartet of mismatched youngsters who take it upon themselves to protect the baby elephant from execution.

Sheila has become Buster (played by Nellie), saved from a bullet by the brooding young Tom (Art Parkinson), whose zookeeper father (Damian O'Hare) has been sent off to war and whose nurse mother (Amy Huberman) has her hands full dealing with bombing-related casualties.

After witnessing the petite pachyderm being proudly paraded through the streets upon arrival in Belfast and having pledged to look after the zoo animals in his dad's absence, the animal-mad youngster hatches a daring plan to keep Buster alive once the authorities decide to implement a cull.

To do so, he needs a little help from his friends: the troubled but resourceful Jane (Emily Flain), bully with a hidden heart of gold Pete (Ian O'Reilly) and mysterious wisecracker Mickey (a scene-stealing James Stockdale).

Reclusive neighbour Mrs Austin, whose menagerie-esque home has long made her a figure of fun, is also duly roped into Tom's scheme – which is further complicated once a price is put on Buster's head.

We watch the kids mucking about in the north Belfast hills while scheming to spring Buster, singing songs and generally creating their own little world apart from the war.

Yet Zoo isn't afraid to tackle the deadly Belfast Blitz which keeps zapping them back to grim reality every night: in the space of just a few weeks, German bombs claimed over 1,000 lives and left many more injured and/or homeless and this is reflected on-screen in a shocking (but non-graphic) manner.

Scenes involving Tom and Buster are well staged. Nellie allows Parkinson to pet her in a highly convincing manner that sells the close bond between animal and human saviour, while the actual elephant 'heist' is excitingly rendered.

However, the increasingly gangly 16-year-old Co Donegal actor occasionally strains the seams of credibility and his horrendous shorts 'n' tank top combo while playing a character who is clearly meant to be a good bit younger.

Parkinson's Belfast-bred Game Of Thrones cohort Ian McElhinney has a small role as bumbling zoo administrator Mr Shawcross and the adult cast is further bolstered by the always reliable Toby Jones as a beady-eyed zoo security guard.

A pretty, perfectly pleasant family-friendly watch, Zoo comes highly recommended for kids and elephant aficionados.

RATING: 7/10

Zoo (PG, 97mins, family/adventure/drama). Art Parkinson, Emily Flain, Ian O'Reilly, Penelope Wilton, Toby Jones, Amy Huberman, Damian O'Hare, Ian McElhinney. Director: Colin McIvor


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