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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Zookeeper's Wife is an intense, sometimes-brutal drama based on the true story (which inspired Diane Ackerman's same-named book) of a couple who helped save hundreds of Warsaw Jews during World War II. Jessica Chastain stars as Antonina Zabinski, who, with her husband, Jan (Johan Heldenbergh), turned their zoo into a different kind of sanctuary during the Nazis' occupation of their city. Expect many disturbing scenes of wartime carnage and destruction -- including bombings, battles, explosions, and shootings. A teen girl is raped by Nazi soldiers (the act itself isn't shown, but viewers see her being taken away and then beaten and bloody after the fact). People are executed, animals are shot, and Jews are rounded up in the Warsaw ghetto and later placed on trains bound for concentration camps. There are many moments of tension and fear, but characters also show compassion and courage in the face of tremendous odds. While there's no strong language to worry about, characters do embrace passionately, and sex is implied (a naked breast is briefly seen). There's also a fair amount of smoking (accurate for the era) and drinking.
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What's the story?
THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE opens in Warsaw in 1939. The Germans are making their presence felt, but life is still filled with joy and a sense of purpose for Antonina Zabinski (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Dr. Jan Zabinski, the keeper of the Warsaw Zoo. Antonina isn't just his devoted spouse; she's also an involved partner in the care and keeping of the animals, many of which adore her. But soon the Zabinskis and their young son must deal with the onslaught of Hitler's Nazis: Warsaw is bombed, and many of the zoo's animals are killed. A former friend-turned-Nazi-zoologist, Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl) claims many of the survivors and proceeds to set up a breeding program at the zoo, while taking a keen interest in Antonina herself. Soon the German troops start rounding Warsaw's Jews up and corralling them in the city's overcrowded ghetto. Jan and Antonina decide that they can't just do nothing while many of their friends are being imprisoned. So they hatch a perilous plan to use the zoo as the front for a resistance that's aimed at shepherding as many Jews as possible out of the ghetto and into freedom.
Is it any good?
This story is beautifully filmed and important, but it suffers from an affliction that many period films based on a single central figure endure: No one except the main character truly comes alive. And while Chastain is captivating in the title role, even Antonina remains somewhat opaque. Her deep love for those she cares for -- both animals and people -- is quickly explained by a short scene late in the film, almost as if someone was checking off a cinematic "to do" list. Everyone else in The Zookeeper's Wife, meanwhile, feels somewhat paint-by-numbers, including both Jan and the Jewish men, women, and children to whom the Zabinskis offer sanctuary. Only one of them, Urszula (Shira Haas), has texture and complexity, and even then, we still don't really get to know her story.
The movie is strongest when it focuses on the Zabinski home and the zoo; the bond between the family and their animals is palpable from the start, when we see their son napping next to a lion cub. But outside of that relative haven, the world is hard and broken, and these sections of the film are less effective, with director Niki Caro relying on visuals we've seen before in many other films about World War II and the Holocaust. Still, The Zookeeper's Wife will likely affect viewers deeply, offering a reminder that cruelty and brutality of this magnitude once had the capability to rob humans of their empathy and, well, humanity. Thankfully it also offers the reminder that there are always bold souls who will brave the fray and fight for what's right. It's an important, and sobering, lesson to re-learn.
Talk to your kids about ...
In addition to showing the Nazis' cruelty to the Jews, the film also shows animals being hurt and outright slaughtered. Do you think those scenes were necessary to the story? What do they convey to viewers?
Do you think you'd have been able to do what the Zabinskis did? Why do you think more people didn't do the same?
How is this movie similar to, and different from, other movies about World War II and the Holocaust? Does it surprise you that there are still so many incredible stories to be told about that time in history?
- In theaters: March 31, 2017
- On DVD or streaming: July 4, 2017
- Cast: Jessica Chastain, Daniel Bruhl, Johan Heldenbergh
- Director: Niki Caro
- Studio: Focus Features
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: History
- Character strengths: Compassion, Courage
- Run time: 124 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity and smoking
- Last updated: July 16, 2020
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