It’s 1941 Belfast, and everyone is living in fear of the Luftwaffe. Air raid wardens are on the streets, and the kids have been issued with gas masks. For 12-year-old Tom (Art Parkinson) though, the big news is that an elephant named “Buster” has arrived at the local Zoo, where his dad is the Keeper.
Tom and the pachyderm are quick pals, and eluding officious security guard (Toby Jones) at the Zoo gates every day adds to the fun – and helps ease the pain when his dad goes off to fight on the battlefields.
But then the air raids begin, and the authorities make the difficult decision to shoot all the animals they think could be a threat to the public if the Zoo was damaged and they got loose – and the list includes Buster.
It’s more than Tom can stand, so he and his fellow misfit schoolfriend Jane (Emily Flain) decide to break Buster out, reluctantly recruiting husky/secret-softie Pete (Ian O’Reilly) and getting his spirited disabled brother Mickey (James Stockdale) as part of the deal.
The rescue goes well, but then the alarm is raised – and a reward offered – and they need somewhere safer to hide Buster. Tom knocks on the back door of Mrs. Austin (Penelope Wilton), a local eccentric who takes in stray creatures of all stripes…
Based loosely on a true story and filmed in and around Belfast, this charming family-friendly story certainly has cute animals – no obvious CGI fake beasties here – to win you over. They wisely don’t turn Buster into an anthropomorphized “character” either, (though there’s never any mention of what must have been his prodigious toilette).
There’s a light directorial touch throughout, but there are some real moments of emotion too. No spoilers, but as many Belfastians still remember the air raids may have been few in number, but they were devastating to the city.
The story slows rather once Buster has been installed in his back yard, but a memorable soundtrack and strong performances from all make this a winning film that you could take anyone to see.