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What parents need to know
People need to know that Zoo is based on events that took place in Northern Ireland in 1941, during World War II. The movie centers on a 12-year-old boy and two friends, who convince an elderly animal lover to help hide a baby elephant from the authorities, who've been directed to "destroy" any potentially dangerous animals. Viewers particularly sensitive to violence involving animals should know that soldiers do shoot zoo animals in one scene, but the film focuses on the perspective of the boy watching it happen. A supporting character dies (be prepared for sadness), and several scenes depict how civilians react to wartime bombings. A school bully is cruel and demanding, and there are scenes in which characters must run for their lives. Language is infrequent but includes a use of "s--t," plus "hell"; a man is referred to as a "drunk." Parents and kids who see the film together can discuss its historical context and the importance of teamwork, compassion, and friendship.
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What's the story?
ZOO is a drama based on events that took place in Northern Ireland in 1941 when marksmen, under orders from the Ministry of Public Security, shot and killed 23 animals at the Belfast Zoo. Later it was discovered that an elephant was secretly being cared for by a local animal lover. The movie is set at the Bellevue Zoological Gardens, where, after the animals' deaths are ordered, horrified 12-year-old Tom (Art Parkinson), the son of the zoo's recently deployed zookeeper, decides to save baby elephant Buster. Tom enlists his best friend, Pete (Ian O'Reilly), and sensitive classmate Jane (Emily Flain) to help him hide Buster at the home of the town's hermetic animal collector, Denise Austin (Penelope Wilton). The plucky kids and their new friend work together to keep Buster safe during German bombings over the town.
Is it any good?
This engaging, heartfelt period drama depicts a little-known story about the extraordinary way an elephant in an Irish zoo was saved during World War II. Historical films, particularly those set in wartime, aren't usually family oriented, but writer-director Colin McIvor has cast kids as the main heroes of the story. Viewers who love animals (especially those with a soft spot for elephants) will feel particularly drawn to the story, but it will also have strong appeal for those who enjoy WWII films or movies based on a true story. The movie's intergenerational aspect sets it apart, with Wilton (best known for Downton Abbey) doing a fine job as Ms. Austin. She's not the stereotypical "cat lady," because she has a wide variety of pets (from a ferret, parrots, and hedgehogs to chickens, dogs, and, yes, cats), and she's lonely but not a hoarder or otherwise mentally ill. The younger actors all interact with her in a natural, charming way.
Ms. Austin's budding friendship with Tom, Pete, and, in particular, Jane, is one of the movie's highlights. There's a touching moment when Ms. Austin realizes that neglected Jane could use some better grooming and offers to brush her unruly hair. What follows is a lovely scene of the older woman and the young girl talking and becoming friends. And Parkinson (Game of Thrones) is endearing as the determined, brave Tom, who's not only dealing with a plan to rescue Buster but with his father being deployed to a frightening war. Toby Jones has a memorable supporting role as a zoo employee, and the entire cast is believable as put-upon villagers trying to survive the threat (and later the reality) of air assault from the Germans. There's a heartbreaking reveal toward the end of the movie, but it only strengthens the reality that while war may offer people the opportunity to be heroic, it also brings tragedy and destruction.
Talk to your kids about ...
Does this story make you want to learn more about World War II stories that aren't well known?
- In theaters: June 8, 2018
- On DVD or streaming: June 26, 2018
- Cast: Toby Jones, Penelope Wilton, Art Parkinson
- Director: Colin McIvor
- Studio: Samuel Goldwyn Films
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: History, Wild Animals
- Character Strengths: Compassion, Teamwork
- Run time: 97 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: thematic elements, some war action and language
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