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The Zookeeper’s Wife

It always amazes me how Hollywood can keep finding these real life heroes from various wars to tell stories about. We had Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge last year, and now we learn the story of Antonia Zabinska (Jessica Chastain). In 1939 she was running a zoo in Poland when the war started. It didn’t just go bad for the Jews, but also the animals. And what Zabinska did was simply astounding. It’s just a shame that Niki Caro couldn’t have given the Zabinska’s a better film. It’s bland and filled with every Holocaust trope imaginable.

When leaving the screening and waiting for the elevator, another critic and I talked about each cliche in the movie. We got to about 10 before the elevator arrived.

This is all based on the book by Diane Ackerman, which I’m sure is better than the movie.

Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) ran the Warsaw Zoo, but when we see Antonia run out to help an elephant give birth during a difficult delivery, we realize she’s more than just a pretty face. Even if that pretty face was just dazzling Dr. Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl of Rush) a few minutes earlier at a party. He’s a zoologist in Germany, that soon becomes the zoologist for the Nazis. That means Antonia can use her wiles to keep some of her animals, and behind his back, help hide Jews that are relegated to the ghettos and certain death.

The Zabinski’s aren’t only hiding people from Nazis, they’re raising their young son, Ryszard (Timothy Radford), amid Allied bombings and Nazis killing animals.

In one of many scenes that should’ve been a bit more harrowing than it was, Heck uses their zoo for breeding purposes. He’s working on trying to recreate extinct animals. That means he’s always showing up. He could be flirtatious one minute, and menacing the next. Yet because of the tropes, we never feel any sense of urgency.

The movie is handsomely shot, and there are some terrific scenes. A few scenes would’ve been more powerful had you not seen them in previous films. One example would be the wild animals running through the streets after a bombing. It reminded me of the much better scene in 12 Monkeys.

I was at CinemaCon in Las Vegas all week, and overheard a few movie executives talking about this picture. One of them said it should’ve gone with an R-rating instead of PG-13, to show the true horrors and ugliness of what happened. The other thought it was bad to make money off movies about the Holocaust. I didn’t have a problem with either of those things. I was a bit more bothered by choppy editing and clumsy storytelling. I also would’ve liked more fully developed characters. I’m not sure if the fault lies with screenwriter Angela Workman, or the director.

The film was well-acted. There’s terrific cinematography and production design. The score worked as well.

It’s just a shame that had this been a better movie, it’s the type of vehicle that would warrant Oscar buzz.

2 ½ stars out of 5.

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