It’s hard to believe any story of defiance against the Nazi regime, as most tell tales of the most courageous acts in the face of overwhelming odds. Now introduce these animals into the equation and the story of The Zookeeper’s Wife is added to the list. However, unlike other similar themed movies (Defiance, Schindler’s List), this latest adaption falls short of being a World War II classic.
Set just before the aerial bombardment of Warsaw, we follow the lives of the Zabinski’s; zookeepers to one of the largest zoos in Europe. Johan Heldenbergh plays Dr. Jan Zabinski who with his wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain), is forced to deal with the invasion affecting their zoo as Polish resistance collapses. Unfortunately, this is only just the beginning and the Zabinski’s soon realize that the worse has yet to come as the fallout to Hitler’s plan begins to unravel. It marks new territory for New Zealand director Niki Caro, whose most famous film was 2002’s Whale Rider. If only this was as impactful.
One of the largest aspects that hurts The Zookeeper’s Wife is its large runtime. Compared to Whale Rider which was just 100 minutes long, Caro has opted to increase this to 126 minutes for her new venture and you really feel that extra time. This is since the screenplay is trying to fit in too much it can handle. A choice was made to not only start at the beginning of the war but to document an almost yearly account of the Zabinski’s and this ultimately takes out the punch of the film. It becomes somewhat of a jumbled mess as we’re presented too many “important” events over the same of six years, so it’s hard to feel connected to any one storyline. I place the word important in quotation marks because most of these could have been cut and instead a clearer picture could form.
When it does portray subplots that matter, The Zookeeper’s Wife excels. Shots of the bombardment down upon the zoo are harrowing to watch and it acts as a reminder that not only humans were victims of war. Likewise, the ending works well enough as a satisfying conclusion that is bound to tug at the heartstrings as all World War II movies should do. It’s just the middle that acts as a mess.
As an animal lover, I knew watching The Zookeeper’s Wife would be difficult to do so. But as a film lover, I still expect more. Jessica Chastain and Daniel Bruhl are great actors and it’s a shame to see their talents wasted in a muddled plotline like this. Hopefully, we get to see another reincarnation of a similar subject matter soon and in a shorter runtime.