Is there a true, inspiring World War II story still left untold? It’s hard to name a subject more exhaustively plundered by Hollywood, though The Zookeeper’s Wife does at least have something to set it apart from its endless predecessors: lions and tigers and bears (also: elephants, cheetahs, a bald eagle, and a live bison birth).
Jessica Chastain and Flemish actor Johan Heldenbergh (The Broken Circle Breakdown) star as Antonina and Jan Żabińska, whose pre-War life as proprietors of the Warsaw Zoo seems like a dreamy sort of human-animal idyll: Lion cubs nap like house cats in their young son’s bed; a baby camel trots jauntily behind Antonina as she does her morning rounds, feeding apples to hippos and hauling fresh hay for her wild menagerie. But it’s 1939, and there’s no question what lies in store for Poland.
Director Niki Caro (The Whale Rider) has adapted Diane Ackerman’s best-selling 2007 nonfiction book into a well-meaning but disappointingly schematic film: Subtract the zebras and the spider monkeys, and it’s one more timeworn tale of tragedy and triumph, poisonous Nazis and noble resistance. After a horrendous, riveting scene of the city’s first major bombing—and the surreal sight of shell-shocked leopards and kangaroos wandering the streets of Warsaw—the movie settles into its conventional narrative: Jan and Antonina decide to turn their newly emptied grounds into a pig farm, which itself becomes a front for smuggling Jews out of the sealed-off ghetto into the vacant underground pens and ultimately to freedom with newly forged papers. Though they risk discovery every day, their most dangerous adversary is a former colleague, the Berlin Zoo head Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl, an actor who seems contractually obligated to play the Bad German in an American movie at least once every two years); now an SS officer with privileges, he aims to take whatever pleases him, including Antonina.
The movie is nicely shot and sympathetically acted, but there’s an odd lack of stakes and urgency, considering their mission—the real-life couple did, in fact, save some 300 lives over the course of the war—and scarcely a moment or character that strays from the familiar. Even at its most engaging (those cubs!), Zookeeper can’t help evoking the dozens of films that have told these stories before, and better. B–