Yet another entry in the glut of World War II films that have found their way to theaters in recent years, the story has two things going for it: It's true and worth telling. During the war, the married couple in charge of the Warsaw Zoo, Jan and Antonina Zabinski, saved as many as 300 Jews by hiding them in tunnels that ran underneath the property.
Based on Diane Ackerman's 2007 nonfiction book, the movie stars Belgian actor Johan Heldenbergh and Jessica Chastain as the brave husband and wife who risked their lives to save so many others.
But right off the bat, something seems off about the framing of their story. On the eve of the invasion, the Warsaw Zoo is portrayed as a magical Shangri-La - a place where Antonina, outfitted in a flowing floral frock, makes her morning rounds on a bicycle accompanied by a nearly tame camel, trotting at her heels. At home, her son sleeps alongside a couple of adorable lion cubs.
Just when it seems like the scenes can't get any more idyllic, Antonina tracks down her loving husband, gives him a kiss, kicks off her heels and offers to pitch in shoveling hay. Manual labor never looked so pretty.
But this reverie can't last forever. Pretty soon bombs are falling, and the arriving Nazi troops take over the city, including the zoo. German zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl) becomes the zoo's new overseer. Not only does he ship Warsaw's most prized animals back to Berlin - shooting the ones he doesn't want - he also takes an unhealthy interest in Antonina.
It's a story that promises major suspense, which only materializes occasionally. Whale Rider director Niki Caro and screenwriter Angela Workman (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan) deliver a fitfully engaging, conspicuously cleaned-up Holocaust drama that, while well-acted all around, gets bogged down by its insistence on hewing to formula.
The drama's greatest misstep is making the deaths of the zoo's creatures more horrifying than some of history's greatest atrocities. Maybe Antonina's preference for the animal kingdom is partly to blame. While she's trying to connect with a young girl who was just raped by German soldiers (Shira Haas), she explains why she loves and trusts animals so much: "You look in their eyes and you know exactly what's in their hearts."
It's yet another example of the way the movie treats Antonina like some kind of wartime Cinderella. You can practically imagine the animals gathering to help her get dressed every morning. She, like her zoo, is perfect beyond plausibility. A heroine like that isn't of this world, and neither are the stakes.
Watch the trailer of The Zookeeper's Wife
Two stars. Rated PG-13. Contains disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity and smoking. 126 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.
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