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Colorado-born eleven year old Marnie McBride is mourning the loss of her beloved mother as she settles into her new home in Scotland with her widowed father, who takes her to a run-down junk shop on her eleventh birthday. There, she is given a box of toy animals by a mysterious old man, which spring to life the next morning. She soon learns from these creatures that they are on an important quest to find an ancient book that holds a dark magical power within its pages, and need to find it before the evil shape shifter, Toledo does first. Marnie reluctantly offers to help, but finds she has her own fair share of problems to deal with, as she tries to make some friends at her new school, as well as put up with the classroom bullies. Written by
The lack of finesse in Justin Molotnikov's direction causes a once-promising fantasy tale to crumble under its own lofty aspirations...
Colorado-born eleven year old Marnie McBride (Vivien Endicott Douglas) is mourning the loss of her beloved mother as she settles into her new home in Scotland with her widowed father (Jason Connery, son of Sean), who takes her to a run-down junk shop on her eleventh birthday. There, she is given a box of toy animals by a mysterious old man (a sleepy Peter Mullan), which spring to life (they are voiced by Rik Mayall, Siobhan Redmond, Alan Cumming and Simon Callow) the next morning. She soon learns from these creatures that they are on an important quest to find an ancient book that holds a dark magical power within its pages, and need to find it before the evil shape shifter, Toledo (Tony Donaldson, in an dire, pantomime-like performance) does first. Marnie reluctantly offers to help, but finds she has her own fair share of problems to deal with, as she tries to make some friends (Krystina Coates) at her new school, as well as put up with the classroom bullies (Maxi Moffatt, Sean Young and Fergus Nimmo, all of whom should be banned from acting hereafter).
While 'Lord of the Rings', 'Harry Potter' and other fantasy franchises seem to be coming at cinemas left right and centre, it's quite difficult to recall a broad, generously budgeted BBC television fantasy drama since the sublime 'Chronicles of Narnia' and 'The Phoenix and the Carpet' miniseries (both of which were based on novels). "Shoebox Zoo" comes to life from the collaborative minds of writer Brian Ward, CBBC Scotland producer Claire Mundell, and director Justin Molotnikov, and it's undoubtedly an ambitious project. But let's not kid ourselves: "Zoo" is clearly the Beeb's answer to the recent crop of theatrical fantasy blockbusters, and who can blame them? The imaginations of children nationwide have been captured by Harry and Frodo's magical adventures, and I applaud the BBC for giving families a chance to enjoy observing similar quests in the comforts of their own home.
The problems become apparent in the on-screen execution of the show. "Shoebox Zoo" strives to be epic and involving, but the lack of finesse in Justin Molotnikov's direction causes a once-promising fantasy tale to crumble under its own lofty aspirations. Molotnikov brings to "Shoebox" a dull, unimaginative aesthetic, hampered even more so by downright lazy plot movements and references that borrow heavily from other, superior films and television shows, from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to the aforementioned 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy. Much has been made of the higher than normal production cost for the show (£4 million per season), but in this case, bigger does not necessarily mean better, with special effects that are decidedly half-baked, extracting the viewer straight out of the world of "Shoebox" faster than you can say "Toledo the Shapeshifter". In particular, the computer animation used to bring the animals inhabiting the "Zoo" of the title to life makes has been poorly rendered, which is the last thing the show needs on its plate, as Molotnikov cuts to the wooden (in more ways than one) creatures too many times. Alas, the vocal cast of solid British acting talent surprisingly doesn't help in breathing life into the motley group of characters, with none of the performers emoting beyond their subhuman caricatures (Siobhan Redmond, you should be ashamed), but it's doubtful that Edwin, Ailsa and pals would convince even if the actors were trying their very best. The production values of "Zoo" are dreadfully meagre, and everything Molotnikov does with them seems forced and unnatural.
Also, it just doesn't feel as if Marnie's actions seem to matter in the grander scheme of things, and she's trying to prevent the end of the world for Christ's sakes!
Another thorn in the side of "Shoebox Zoo" is Molotnikov's continued reliance on actress Vivien Endicott Douglas's shrill performance as Marnie McBride. I'm sure many will use her age and inexperience to justify, but let's be honest: Douglas is all wrong for the part of Marnie, which requires far more acting finesse and ability to project natural teen angst in front of a camera than the thirteen year old is capable of. Marnie is a wallflower of sorts, but Douglas is all too happy with playing up the character's bitchy outbursts, and actually botches scenes where Marnie is allowed to grieve over the loss of her mother. Douglas makes Marnie cold and unlikeable, when an affable central character was a key factor in making "Shoebox" work.
Of course, not being based on a novel or any previously produced or published work of any kind, Brian Ward seems to have been given the permission to run to the hills with his creation for as long as he wants; apparently a second season of "Shoebox Zoo" is currently in production. Additionally, two more lay in wait some way down the pipeline, along with a feature film. But what's the point of unleashing a story onto the big screen when it can't even be executed properly on the tube? Hopefully, none of these grandiose plans will ever make it past development. Yes, "Shoebox Zoo" does have potential, but unless the show carries through with its promise to deliver a classic fantasy story, this is one "Zoo" I won't be revisiting any time soon.
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