Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Zookeeper's Wife Review

I was originally planning on seeing "The Zookeeper's Wife" towards the end of March when it was released. A movie about animals, zoos, World War II and saving Jews seemed like a winner. Plus usually all you have to do is announce a movie is starring Jessica Chastain and I'll be down for seeing it. She's one of the best actresses in the business right now in my humble opinion and I love seeing what she brings to the table in each of her movies. So why did I not see this when I was planning? Well, Focus Features decided to release it in only 541 theaters on opening weekend instead of the initial plan of a wide release, which kept it away from my current city for it's first two weekends and I didn't really feel like driving 45 minutes to see it. But it finally arrived and amidst a slow April with a ton of mediocre movies, if this is in a theater near you and you are in need of a movie, I think this is a pretty good option. Critics seem split down the middle with this one as it currently holds a 58 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, but I think the more accurate indicator in this case is the Flixter User Score, which is at 81 percent. While this movie isn't as emotionally powerful as I was expecting it to be, I do think it's a solid film and I think casual audiences will enjoy it more than critics have.

The story of the movie takes place in Poland during World War II and tells the true story of Jan and Antonina Żabiński and how they helped rescue around 300 Jews over the course of World War II. A more accurate title to me may have been "The Zookeeper and His Wife" because the story is about both of them. But I suppose they call it "The Zookeeper's Wife" because the book this is based off was taken from the diary of Antonina and gives it that title, so it makes sense. But anyways, the two of them are running and living at the Warsaw Zoo when, on September 1, 1939, we have the German invasion of Poland where sadly the zoo gets caught in the crossfire and mostly destroyed. The Żabińskis survive, though, and once we get into the thick of things and they see what is going on with the Jews, they come up with a plan to use the destroyed zoo that they still live at, and plan to rebuild once the war is over, as a secret refuge for Jews, some of whom stay for just a night or two while others stay for the entire war. Their cover-up plan to pull this off is to use the zoo as a pig farm to feed the German soldiers so that they can fly under the radar and hopefully not get caught. In the meantime, Antonina uses her piano playing as a warning for when there's potential danger.

Right off the bat I feel obligated to warn you that this is not a kid's film. If you know me well enough, you'll know that I'm not a big fan of the MPAA because there's a lot of ambiguity and gray area. I don't like it when people use the MPAA alone as a strict guideline for when to see and not see a movie rather than looking at the content in the film. PG-13 is an especially gray area since many PG-13 films, especially the superhero and recent Star Wars film, are mild enough that a 9 or 10 year old child would have no problem with while other PG-13 films probably shouldn't be seen until one is closer to being a legal adult. This movie belongs in the latter category. While I didn't notice much blood or language, the war scenes were rather brutal. I cringed in my seat quite a bit during the bombing sequences or when soldiers would shoot people and/or animals. Then we have a certain bedroom scene where the sheets don't quite cover Jessica Chastain well enough when she shifts in her bed. Thus I think they got away with a PG-13 when this arguably could've been R. I mainly say this because I know there are people who are understandably sensitive to war movies and I wanted to give you a fair warning in case you are one of these people. Proceed with caution.

Moving forward, there's two movies that came to my mind while I was watching this. "Schindler's List" and "The Book Thief." I say "Schindler's List" because both movies have in common the theme of saving Jews from the horrors of World War II. However, "Schindler's List" is a movie that packs a powerful punch in helping us see the true horrors of what happened to these people. It's a movie that's worth being watched at least once for educational purposes, but given how hard it is to watch, it's one that perhaps needs only one watch as it's not the type of movie you'd throw in on a random evening when you are bored. "The Zookeeper's Wife" had the potential to be a movie similar to this given the content. Thus had they played their cards right, this could've been a November or December release with strong potential to be a big awards contender. That's not what this movie is, though. Yes, there are several really brutal scenes that make me stand by my previous statement that if you don't handle war films too well, you may need to proceed with caution, but this is also a movie that plays it safer than it needed to. I didn't go in expecting it to be as heavy as "Schindler's List," but I was slightly disappointed that it didn't pack as much of an emotional punch as they could've.

With that in mind, in comes my second comparison. "The Book Thief." This is what I would classify as an very underrated film that also dealt with World War II in a more toned back, quiet sort of way, choosing to focus more on the story of a few people who had to go through war instead of giving a first-hand, brutal look into the horrific moments that happened. It was released at the end of 2013 and also holds a rotten score on Rotten Tomatoes of 46 percent, not too far below the 57 percent of "The Zookeeper's Wife." I would say both movies deserve to be at least in the 70's or 80's on Rotten Tomatoes, but it is what it is. The tone of "The Zookeeper's Wife" is very much like "The Book Thief." Yes, they could've done more to give the movie more emotional weight, but what they chose to do wasn't bad. We spend a lot of time with Jessica Chastain in the zoo with these people. We don't get a ton of background on where they've been or the specifics of what happened to them, but there's a lot of character building with these quiet moments that makes you really appreciate what this couple did for these people despite the high risk of what could've happened to everyone had their secret plan been found out. Because of this, I was nervous in the final act of this movie.

I suppose if people don't like the idea of spending a lot of time hidden down in the basement corridors with these people that were hiding from the Germans, then this may come off as too slow and boring. If you need a war thriller that is action packed and gruesome from beginning to end, perhaps you may want to look elsewhere. But in my experience, the story of this movie was told well enough for me to be continually interested in what happens next and the characters were good enough to help me be emotionally invested. Jessica Chastain especially pulls off a good enough performance to carry this film and Daniel Brühl was an intimidating enough presence as one of our German soldiers to make me nervous every time he was on scene, especially during the moments where he was in the house. Their was enough war scenes scattered throughout with the bombings and other actions of the Germans to make it so that you can't be comfortable. Thus even though much of the movie was fairly slow, I was still on the edge of my seat for most of the movie, especially because the war scenes were pretty brutal when they did happen. I don't know if I'll have a huge desire to watch this movie again, but I'm grateful I learned this story and thus I'll give "The Zookeeper's Wife" an 8/10.

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