If you’ve seen any ads for The Zookeeper’s Wife, you may have already smelled a rat. What’s an awardsy-looking Jessica Chastain Holocaust movie doing opening in March? Could it be that Focus Features is that rare studio trusting Academy voters to remember their prestige picture 10 months from now? Sadly I’m scoring this one for Occam. The most obvious explanation seems truest, that The Zookeeper’s Wife is opening in March because it isn’t very good. It’s more like a clumsily told, basic cable Schindler’s List.
I’m an unabashed sucker for period piece costume dramas and possess a dad-like ability to sit through damn near anything about Hitler, but every so often I get to see the world through the eyes of people who find such things dull. Watching The Zookeeper’s Wife was one of those times. If you read the jacket copy for Diane Ackerman’s book on which it was based, about “the true story in which the keepers of the Warsaw Zoo saved hundreds of people from Nazi hands,” you’d probably think Gee, that sounds like a pretty good story.
But a good story has interesting characters, and The Zookeeper’s Wife mainly has attractive ciphers for “courage” or “evil.” That essentially does the opposite of make history come alive. Hey, remember back in olden times when no one acted like a person?
Even worse, the story treats identifying details as mere garnish, elements to be sprinkled lightly throughout the story without incorporating into a narrative, all resting on a big pile of assumptions. It’s one of those movies that feels like a feature length adaptation of its own poster. Nazis bad. Zookeepers brave. Animals photogenic.