Director: Kim Taeyun
Cast: Lee Seungmin, Kim Seohyung, Bae Jungnam, Shin Hakyun, (voice) Shin Hakyun, You Inna, Kim Soomi, Lee Sunkyun, Lee Jungeun, Lee Soonjae, Kim Boseong, Joon Park
Runtime: 1 hr 54 mins
Rating: PG13 (Some Violence)
Released By: mm2 Entertainment
Opening Day: 12 March 2020
Synopsis: Top National Intelligence Service agent Tae-ju (Lee Sungmin) injures his head while on a mission protecting a VIP – a Chinese panda named Ming Ming, from a group of terrorists. As a result of the accident, he suddenly possesses a strange ability to communicate with animals. Tae-ju then realizes that the only witness to the kidnapping may be a retired military dog named Ali (Shin Hakyun). Although he hates animals, he and Ali soon become unlikely partners to rescue Ming Ming.
Before you dismiss this as a ripoff of ‘Dr Dolittle’, you should know that writer-director Kim Tae-yun’s comedy is a lot more entertaining than you’re probably expecting it to be. Oh yes, while it may seem like yet another fantasy of a man who suddenly gains the ability to communicate with animals, ‘Mr Zoo’ is much wackier than your run-of-the-mill Hollywood family movie, even if it does eventually settle for the same happily-ever-after ending. Where else can you claim to have seen a female gorilla ogling at other pictures of other fellow gorillas in a National Geographic magazine, in exchange for information on a missing panda?
In a witty bit of double entendre, the subtitle ‘The Missing VIP’ refers not just to its status as an envoy from China but also to its very nature as a Very Important Panda. Though he is not much of an animal lover, the titular National Intelligence Service agent volunteers for the mission of looking after Ming Ming, who has been dispatched by the Chinese as part of its ‘panda diplomacy’ with the ROK. Alas, Ming Ming is kidnapped on his first public appearance at a zoo, and in the ensuing melee to stop his kidnappers, Mr Zoo (Lee Sung-min) hits his head on the ground and regains consciousness to find that he can hear and speak to animals.
What follows is a series of fish-out-of-water episodes, with Mr Zoo struggling to come to terms with his newfound abilities as well as convincing those around him of them. From his neighbour’s pug who pleads with him to save it from neutering, to a grouchy hamster asking Mr Zoo to choose it as a pet over two hedgehogs next to it, to the fish in his office’s tank who ask him to tell his colleagues not to throw their nose shit into the water, and to the aforementioned gorilla, there is plenty of wacky fun to be had with Mr Zoo’s initial confusion and angst, not least when he tries to demonstrate to his superior Min (Kim Seo-hyung) that he isn’t crazy.
Things settle into a more predictable rhythm as Mr Zoo teams up with a retired military dog Ali (Shin Ha-kyun) to track down the missing panda. Seized by fear, Ali had run away from his NIS handler during the incident, but with help from the gorilla, Mr Zoo finds his hideout and attempts to persuade him to locate the kidnappers. Again, it isn’t hard to guess that Mr Zoo and Ali will take some time to get used to being around each other, or even that Mr Zoo’s teenage daughter Seo-yeon (Kal So-won) would be one of the key reasons why he comes around to embracing Ali as his companion. Oh yes, though one half is a canine, theirs is pretty much a buddy cops team-up.
There is a surprising amount of story in the film’s second hour, in which Kim packs more than a few twists and turns before Ming Ming is out of danger. Among them is an unscrupulous biotech company named Genomics, whose founder aims to turn pandas into man’s next best friend; and a disgruntled Middle East soldier Dmitry (David Lee McInnis), who is linked to a tragic event in Ali’s past and whose mission to wreck anarchy upon the rich and powerful sets up a (literally) explosive finale at a high-profile event graced by the foreign ministers of China and ROK. Admittedly, it does get a little overblown and overlong, but Kim manages to wring genuine emotion out of the unexpected pairing between Mr Zoo and Ali.
Familiar though it may be, there is no denying the chemistry between man and dog is winning. Much of that is Lee’s credit, the underrated actor displaying an amazing amount of range in a rare comedic turn that is utterly captivating. Without ever resorting to pandering, Lee wins you over as his character grows to accept a dog as his partner, and eventually proves his loyalty towards Ali just as the latter does likewise towards Mr Zoo. In addition to Shin, Lee also has plenty of lively banter with a whole host of voice cameos, including Yoo In-na as the panda Ming Ming, Lee Soon-jae as the hamster, Kim Soo-mi as a parrot, Lee Sun-kyun as a black goat and Lee Jung-eun as the black gorilla.
So while you can guess how it will eventually turn out, ‘Mr Zoo’ is really a lot more delightful than we had expected it to be. The gags, even some of the childish ones, are well-executed and often hit the mark. The visual effects, though not quite up to Hollywood standard, are impressive for Asian cinema. And last but not least, the central relationship between Mr Zoo and Ali is thoroughly endearing. Though it ain’t quite the sort of movie you’d expect out of Korea, that it works as well as it does is testament yet again to the creativity, ingenuity and versatility of the industry, and let’s just say we hope in between the next ‘Parasite’ and ‘Train to Busan’ that there’ll be a sequel to ‘Mr Zoo’.
(Not just a ripoff of 'Dr Dolittle', this wacky buddy comedy between an ace NIS agent and a retired military dog is surprisingly witty and delightful)
Review by Gabriel Chong