It’s never a waste of time watching Jessica Chastain, even if the film she’s in isn’t great. The Zookeeper’s Wife is a perfect example: an earnest historical drama that never scales the emotional heights the real-life story would seem to promise. But Chastain is faultless as Antonina Żabiński, who with her husband Jan ran the Warsaw Zoo during the turbulent years of World War Two. Not only did the couple try to protect their animals from rapacious Nazi invaders; they found a way to shelter several hundred Jewish citizens.

Here is the stuff of great drama. Indeed, Żabiński’s diaries inspired a best-selling book by Diane Ackerman. But screenwriter Angela Workman and talented director Niki Caro (Whale Rider, McFarland U.S.A.) have somehow dropped the ball. Their film is never dull, but that’s not the kind of compliment I’d welcome if I were dramatizing this material.

Daniel Brühl, who’s made a strong impression in such films as Inglourious Basterds and Rush, scores again as a Nazi officer who shows mixed feelings about the Żabińskis and their precious zoo. His ambitions and motivations provide the film’s most intriguing subplot.

The environment of the zoo itself is equally interesting, when we first encounter it in peacetime and then see it and its inhabitants destroyed in a sequence of surreal images.

Despite Chastain’s grounded performance and persuasive Polish accent, The Zookeeper’s Wife never captures the urgency—and tragedy—inherent in its story, which takes place in a rarified world that exists alongside the infamous Warsaw Ghetto. The movie feels like a missed opportunity.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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April 2024