If the 1941 Blitz of Belfast, Northern Ireland, doesn’t seem the likeliest setting for a heartwarming, family-friendly film, think again.
Writer-director Colin McIvor’s “Zoo” is a lovely, true-life memory piece about 12-year-old animal lover Tom (Art Parkinson), whose devoted dad (Damian O’Hare), a veterinarian at the city zoo, goes off to war. At the same time, the government directs the military to kill the zoo’s riskier animals, including a newly arrived young elephant named Buster, fearing the creatures might escape and cause destruction during the German bombings of the city.
Amid air raids, curfews, gas mask drills and rationing, Tom, who’s become fast friends with Buster, hatches a plucky plan to save the beast from certain death. Aided by classmates Jane (Emily Flain) and Pete (Ian O’Reilly) — and Pete’s goofball brother, Mickey (James Stockdale) — Tom springs Buster from the zoo under the nose of an erratic security guard (Toby Jones).
But when Tom must ask an eccentric neighborhood animal collector (Penelope Wilton, excellent) to hide the placid pachyderm in her barnyard of a backyard, complications ensue — as does much good will and emotional healing.
It all plays out more convincingly than it may sound, with McIvor layering in depth, dimension and grace. Period re-creation is also first rate and, for animal fans, there’s eye candy aplenty in the form of giraffes, lions, chimps, flamingos and, of course, one soulful elephant.
Rating: PG, for thematic elements, some war action and language
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; also on VOD