Taking peculiar advantage of the old disaster-movie rule that audiences care more about whether a single dog lives or dies than they do about the fates of people, “Zoo” amplifies the horrors of the Luftwaffe air raids on Belfast during World War II by focusing not on human casualties but on what becomes of the animals trapped at the local zoo. Writer-director Colin McIvor adapts the true-ish story of how a handful of citizens came to the rescue of a baby elephant into an unlikely family film, one that will delight the kids (who see themselves portrayed as heroes) while leaving parents with a lot of explaining to do.
On one hand, they’ll have to reconcile the children’s heroic actions with the fact that they appear to be disobeying adults at every turn. Trickier still, the film hinges on a seemingly cruel edict, issued by the British Ministry of Public Security, ordering the destruction of 33 potentially dangerous animals housed by the Belfast Zoo, for fear that they might get loose during the Belfast blitz of 1941. While decided with the public’s safety in mind, such a policy won’t sit well with children — or animal rights activists — who might reasonably point out that none of these creatures asked to be held captive in Northern Ireland in the first place. (While wrenching, the scene in which soldiers carry out these executions is far less traumatizing than an equivalent massacre in last year’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” although nothing in McIvor’s film could be said to match the impact of that remarkable film, also inspired by true events, in which empty cages were used to hide Jewish refugees.)
Here, McIvor has taken considerable liberties with history. In reality, a zoo employee named Denise Austin — later dubbed “the elephant angel” — took it upon herself to care for the young pachyderm, freeing it from its enclosure after work and walking it the few blocks to her nearby home, where it slept in her high-walled private yard, before returning it to the zoo each morning. That alone would have made for a fine film, although McIvor opts to reimagine the story with a group of courageous kids at the center, inventing a 12-year-old animal enthusiast named Tom Hall (Art Parkinson) and a trio of friends, who put themselves at great risk to save the creature.
The son of a veterinarian who worked at the zoo before being sent off to war, Tom visits the animals every chance he gets, sneaking past the surly guard (Toby Jones) and making friends with the baby elephant, whom he names Buster. Tom has a much harder time dealing with his fellow humans, as illustrated by scenes in which he is bullied by ill-behaved classmates, or an awkward attempt to befriend a largely fictionalized version of Denise Austin (Penelope Wilton), who is depicted here as a bedraggled old spinster — and reduced to a supporting role in her own story. Imagine the ultimate cat lady, and then multiply that by 100. That’s the kind of eccentric animal hoarder Wilton plays here: As if tending a personal zoo from her home, Austin keeps rabbits in her kitchen and hedgehogs in the side table, while feed and fecal matter spill from every conceivable corner of her overstuffed menagerie.
With big brown eyes and a wild mop of hair, “Game of Thrones” actor Parkinson makes for a suitably Dickensian lead, while his cohorts — Emily Flain as a scruffy classmate and Ian O’Reilly as Pete, a belligerent ex-rival who proves to be something of a softie when treated with respect — would be right at home in a Nickelodeon TV movie. The scene-stealer here is James Stockdale, who plays Pete’s brother Mickey, a not-quite-three-foot teen with an unspecified disability and preternatural charm (he gets all the film’s best lines), hidden from public view at a time when families were ashamed of special-needs children. Pete brings Mickey along on the elephant-liberating heist, providing a gentle lesson (for the characters and young audiences alike) in overcoming prejudice while supplying a note of unpredictability to the otherwise overly safe narrative.
Alternating almost seamlessly between trained animals and CG stand-ins, McIvor does a nice job of navigating the evolving concerns of how nonhuman actors are treated on- and off-screen. As historical re-creation goes, the film looks best during outdoor scenes, even when digital mattes are required to extend skylines and reveal smoldering homes devastated by aerial attack (whereas the perfectly lit, amber-haloed interiors have a phonier, more stagebound feel). One beautifully orchestrated air-raid scene — featuring iconic shots that would be right at home in “The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp” or “Atonement” — may be a bit intense for younger audiences, as is the death of a key character, although as long as the elephant survives, the kids should be OK.