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Movie Review: “The Zookeeper's Wife”

Updated on May 29, 2020
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There are many movies that are worth seeing, but there are a lot of stinkers as well. My goal here is to weed out the good from the bad.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

Theatrical Release: 4/7/2017
Theatrical Release: 4/7/2017 | Source


This movie tells the story of Antonina Zabinkski (Jessica Chastain) and Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), who were a non-Jewish married couple that lived on and ran a zoo in Warsaw, Poland just before the beginning of World War II. Antonina is a respected animal whisperer, of sorts, who has a way with all of the animals in the zoo. The couple live at the zoo with their son when, one day the Nazi forces reach Poland and use an air strike to drop bombs on Warsaw. Devastated by the Nazi invasion and the horrors that the Jewish population is being forced to endure, the Zabinskis decide to use their zoo as a hideout and sanctuary for the Jewish people that they rescue from the ghetto. If this did not already sound like an impossible task, their zoo is also being occupied by Nazi forces.

Official Trailer

The Pros & Cons

The Pros
The Cons
Jessica Chastain (+10pts)
Setup/Focus (-5pts)
The Plot (+8pts)
The Ghetto (-3pts)
Johan Heldenbergh (+5pts)
The Boy (-1pts)

All movies start with an average score of 75pts, points are then added or subtracted based on each Pro and Con. Each Pro or Con is designated points, ranging from 0-10, to convey how significant these Pros or Cons are.


Pro: Jessica Chastain (+10pts)

As should be no surprise, Jessica Chastain is easily one of the best parts of this film. Initially, her character seemed like a one-note character, as a soft-spoken animal whisperer and expert. However, the film goes on to show the character has a lot more complexity. In certain scenes, the character shows strength and courage, but Jessica Chastain's eyes told a much different story. They show fear, and pain in a compelling way.

The character has a facade of strength and confidence, but is well aware of the risk and very much fears the consequences of getting caught. Nonetheless, she knows what she is doing is right, and knows that it is worth the risk. There was a lot going on in this character's head and Jessica Chastain nailed the performance. Her performance will captivate the audience and I think the movie is worth seeing for this performance alone.


Con: Setup & Focus (-5pts)

I really enjoyed the setup to this movie. It really sucked me into the film and had me invested in these character's lives, but I did not think the setup matched with the rest of the movie. At least as far as what the setup focused on. The setup focused on the love of animals. It focused on the expertise and passion that the main characters had toward the animals in their zoo, while paying very little attention to the imminent World War or the Nazis. However, the rest of the movie focused on World War II and the Holocaust, while paying very little attention to the main characters' passion for animals. However, I do understand that the beginning of the movie showed the main characters' passion for all life, but I did not think that this needed that much focus at the beginning of the movie.

Each part of the movie worked really well, but the filmmakers could have done a better job of connecting these two portions of the story. It also felt like the beginning portion of the movie, showing Antonina's role at the zoo, was drawn on a bit too long, which made the movie feel like it was two separate movies mashed together. The first was about Antonina and her husband's life at the zoo, the second was about their role during the holocaust. I understand that this movie focused on the family at the zoo and that these characters did not fully understand what was coming, and that the filmmakers wanted the audience to feel how blindsided these characters must have felt. That being said, I think the story could have been a lot more impactful if the beginning was more concise and if there was a little more connection between the two parts to this story.


Pro: The Plot (+8pts)

Telling true stories, of some truly inspiring people that made a difference in the world have the potential to make for really compelling stories. Stories like this are important and I love seeing them told on-screen. This movie is based on a true story about a couple of non-Jewish zookeepers in late 1930s Poland, who used their zoo as refuge, and as an Underground Railroad of sorts to men, women and children who had been victimized by the Nazis. The zookeeper's wife, Antonina, was the one looking after and protecting the refugees from the local Nazis who were setup within the grounds of the zoo.

Meanwhile, Antonina's husband (the zookeeper) was making trips to get more refugees to bring to the zoo. Two humble zookeepers, with some help, made a difference and successfully saved hundreds of Jews from the horrors of the Holocaust. It was a story about fear and fear, and was about the horrors that people can exact on each other, as well as being about the compassion that humanity can have toward one another. This story was really compelling, and was one that I really enjoyed experiencing.


Con: The Ghetto (-3pts)

One issue I had with the film, was that it did not properly focus on the horrors within the ghetto, aside from one incident involving the girl. Other than that incident the movie sort of glossed over a lot of what the men and women in this situation had to deal with. Most of what we see of the ghetto is seen through the eyes of Jan Zabinski. I get that the movie did not focus on this since the plot centers around the zoo, but I think the movie would have connected more with its audience if it spent a little more time showing Jan witnessing the ghetto, because it would have made us more invested in the difference that the main characters were trying to make.


Pro: Johan Heldenbergh (+5pts)

Johan Heldenbergh played Jan Zabinski in this movie. I thought this actor did a magnifive job of showing the weight and the depression that this man must have gone through. Witnessing the ghetto the way he did, knowing that he could save some, but knowing that no matter how many he saved it would still never be enough. This took a huge toll on this man, he risked his life on a daily basis to save as many as he could, but he had to do so while looking into the eyes of and witnessing the horror that fell upon all the people that he could not save. I it is some pretty heavy stuff, and I thought Johan did an outstanding job of bringing all of that weight to the screen.


Con: The Boy (-1pts)

This was a pretty minor issue, but this movie covered a large period of time. Naturally, the zookeepers' son would grow older. In this movie, there was a random switch in the actor that was playing the son. This would have been fine if there were not a bunch of other children coming and going from the zoo. As a result, the first scene after the actor switch, I had no idea who this boy was that was talking, and it took me a bit to figure out that it was the son. I know this is a pretty minor issue, since I figured it out before long, but I think the film should have introduced the new actor in another scene to make the actor transition more clear.

Grading Scale


Grade: B+ (89pts)

I really enjoyed this movie. It was not perfect, but Jessica Chastain delivered a fantastic performance, Johan Heldenbergh did the same, and the plot for the film was truly compelling. Knowing that the film was based on a true story made it even better, as it added a lot of weight to what was going on. One of the films biggest weaknesses was that I did not think the setup fit well with the rest of the movie. It was not that the setup was bad or uninteresting, it just felt like a very different movie than what would come later, and it felt like it was drawn out longer than it needed to be. That being said, this was a compelling movie from beginning to end. I think it is an important story about how anyone can make a difference, while also exploring the weight of the horrors of the holocaust.


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