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Animals hold no ill will
Like we humans when we kill.
Animals cannot relate
To we who brand and scorn and hate.

Life is simple in their eyes,
Where we confuse and compromise,
Yet, when all the world grows cruel,
Survival is our common rule.

Man can treat his fellow man
Far worse than other creatures can.
Likewise, mankind stands apart
In sharing greater depths of heart.

MPAA rating: PG-13

There are some movies that, no matter how well made they are, just tend to fall into the second tier of their genre. The Zookeeper’s Wife is one such film, yet another historical drama based on true events of endangered Europeans dealing with the Nazi occupation and risking all to help Jews during the Holocaust. Such films are guaranteed to be emotional and impactful as they strive to emulate Schindler’s List, but although I haven’t been able to bring myself to watch Schindler’s List for comparison, I can tell that The Zookeeper’s Wife likely won’t win any Oscars, if its March release date wasn’t already a hint.

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Jessica Chastain as Antonina Żabiński is the titular wife to Johan Heldenbergh’s zookeeper Jan Żabiński, both of whom happily run the Warsaw Zoo in the days leading up to the German invasion. As someone who has always enjoyed visits to the zoo, I enjoyed the scenes with the diverse animals, which are charmingly natural, as if it’s perfectly normal in this family to cuddle with a white lion cub. Of course, those scenes are quickly upended by Nazi bombers who decimate the city and many of the exhibits, leaving released camels and big cats to add to the chaos. These scenes and the deaths that result can be distressing for animal lovers, but the film doesn’t dwell on the animals themselves for long, as the zoo is promptly emptied by Hitler’s chief zoologist Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl). Without a zoo to care for, the Żabińskis turn their attention to the impounded Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, choosing to take part in an Underground Railroad to help them to safety and hide them in the zoo.

All three of the main actors do excellent work here, particularly Chastain, fake accent and all. While his character is far more actively involved in the resistance movement, smuggling Jews from the ghetto in a garbage truck, Heldenbergh is oddly sidelined at times, hence why the film isn’t called The Zookeeper. Having played a Nazi before in Inglourious Basterds, Bruhl is respectably menacing in his romantic advances toward Antonina, which she humors for the sake of keeping him off the scent of her hidden friends. When he does catch on, his jilted fury is frighteningly unpredictable during a heart-in-the-throat scene toward the end. While some details are given at the end, I do wish there was a little more information about what became of the Żabińskis afterward.

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There’s little negative to say about The Zookeeper’s Wife. My VC read the book and found this to be an admirable adaptation, despite certain changes. The music, the locations, the moments of shocking inhumanity and heartening empathy are all commendably effective, but not quite as involving as they would seem on paper. It’s ultimately more encouraging than some of its devastating cousins, perhaps owing to the restraint afforded by its PG-13 rating. There is no shortage of Holocaust movies, and considering how easily mankind forgets, even today, there need to be many more, so The Zookeeper’s Wife deserves to be seen, even if it’s not one of the stand-outs of the group.

Best line: (Antonina) “You can never tell who your enemies are or who to trust. Maybe that’s why I love animals so much. You look in their eyes, and you know exactly what’s in their hearts. They’re not like people.”


Rank: List Runner-Up


© 2017 S.G. Liput
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