What it's about:
The real-life story of one working wife and mother who became a hero to hundreds during World War II. In 1939 Poland, Antonina Zabinska and her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski, have the Warsaw Zoo flourishing under his stewardship and her care. When their country is invaded by the Nazis, Jan and Antonina are stunned – and forced to report to the Reich’s newly appointed chief zoologist, Lutz Heck. To fight back on their own terms, Antonina and Jan covertly begin working with the Resistance – and put into action plans to save lives out of what has become the Warsaw Ghetto, with Antonina putting herself and even her children at great risk.
What we thought:Hollywood churns out World War II films about as fast as it churns out superhero films, and it’s getting harder to find that unique story that hasn’t been told yet. In The Zookeeper’s Wife, we turn our gaze towards the adorable animals of a zoo in Poland, just as Nazi’s take over the city of Warsaw. Will you cry? Probably. Is Jessica Chastain amazing? Of course. Will it make any mark on the awards circuit? Not really.
The film shows the role Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) and their famous Warsaw Zoo played during the Nazi-occupation of the Polish capital, smuggling Polish Jews out of the Ghetto and hiding them in the Zoo’s basement. Meanwhile, Antonina has to hold the interest of a German zoologist (Daniel Brühl) in order to keep their secrets safe.
Whatever your feelings may be regarding zoos, director Niki Caro did an exceptional job at portraying the relationship between the animals and Chastain’s character. The animals looked mostly very happy on-screen, and the chemistry the loveable actress has with them was incredibly touching. The relationships didn’t feel faked, the animals didn’t look forced into doing tricks and Chastain has an amazing repertoire with her furry co-stars. From elephant to camel to pig to rabbit, whenever an animal and Chastain was on-screen together, you couldn’t help but get a warm glow deep inside, which of course makes the Nazis look even more evil than you thought possible.
But unfortunately, the plot itself didn’t exactly have the same impact. The real story of course is very intriguing and all the acting was superb, and one can’t be not horrified by the treatment of Jews, but somehow cinematically it felt like it was lacking a certain punch that other World War II films like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Schindler’s List have. Those films are emotional torture devices that leave a heavy impact on its audience, whereas The Zookeeper’s Wife has some obligatory sentimental tears but doesn’t bring home the gut punch.
Granted, not every World War II film should turn the audience into emotional wrecks (Inglorious Bastards is a glorious example), but the sentiment shouldn’t feel forced - even the rape scenes felt like cheap emotional hits. Luckily the great actors and adorable animals were enough that it somewhat obscured the tack in the film, and makes it a good enough watch if you feel like some Nazi bashing. My only hope is that one day Brühl will be known for more than just being the go-to guy for Nazi douche roles.