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The Zookeeper's Wife (2017)

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 7/4/2017

All Ratings out of





Review by Mike Long, Posted on 7/3/2017

Movie villains come in many different shapes and sizes. From little girls in things like The Bad Seed to the biggest monsters, we've seen a slew of various bad guys over the years. But, for nearly a decade now, one group which consistently does evil deeds in movies are the Nazis. Beginning with the World War II era, through Raiders of the Lost Ark and on to oddities like Iron Sky, Nazis have graced the screen over and over. And, in the bulk of those movies, the Nazis do despicable things and the audience does not like them. Well, if you think that you hate Nazis now, just wait until you see The Zookeeper's Wife, a movie which takes Nazi atrocities into a new direction.

As The Zookeeper's Wife opens, it is 1939 in Warsaw, Poland. The city zoo is overseen by Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) and his wife, Antonina (Jessica Chastain), and it's very popular with children and families. Along with their young son, Ryszard (Timothy Radford), the Zabinski's show great affection to the animals and one another. Thus, it's devastating when Nazi forces bomb Warsaw, destroying some parts of the zoo. Where the bombs didn't decimate the attractions, they damaged the cages so that the animals got free, and were then shot by Nazi soldiers. The zoo is placed under Nazi command as Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), a zookeeper from Berlin, is placed in charge of a breeding project there. Determined to help their fellow citizens, Jan and Antonina devise a plan to smuggle Jewish people out of the Warsaw ghetto, house them in the zoo, and then get them out of the country. Even with their space and limited freedom, this is still a very dangerous venture.

Falling into line with a lot of other recent films based on true stories, The Zookeeper's Wife tells a story which isn't very well known, but deserves to be told. The way in which the Nazis forced the Jewish residents of Warsaw to move into a specific section of the city which was then sealed off from the rest of the world is common knowledge, but the story of the Zabinski's is not. Every story from World War II which focuses on Poland comes across as depressing and hopeless, so it was great to see a story which was not only hopeful, but one which showed such great altruism. And, as mentioned above, the movie does not hold back in portraying the true evil which was Nazism. At the outset, Heck seems to be an OK guy, but then we learn that he is Hitler's zookeeper (was that a thing) and we then learn that he really doesn't care about animals. We are very familiar with the tales of how Nazis treated human, but to see them thoughtlessly slaughter animals is shocking as well. Not only are the Nazis portrayed as inherently cruel here, but they are shown as being stupid as well. Despite the fact that guards are posted at the zoo (for some reason), the Bazinski's are able to sneak people in and out.

So, there are a lot of positive things happening with the story in The Zookeeper's Wife. And, again, it introduces us to a tale from World War II that is most likely unknown to most. However, the movie leaves a lot to be desired. Director Niki Caro's original cut was reportedly 3 1/2 hours, so perhaps a lot of the things which are missing from the finished film found their way onto the cutting room floor. For starters, the movie is incredibly devoid of emotion. We know intellectually that what we are watching is moving and sad, but I didn't feel very much while viewing the film. When there is so much human tragedy going on and the deaths of the animals is the most touching part, something has gone wrong. There is also very little suspense here. In this sort of story, we should constantly be on the edges of seats wondering if someone is going to get caught. (I know that this isn't exactly The Diary of Anne Frank, but there should have been a lot more tension.) Finally, the movie doesn't do enough with character development. In reality, Jan was both a revered zoologist and a revolutionary, but we get little of that here.

In the end, The Zookeeper's Wife finds itself in the same category as Hidden Figures and Loving. The movie presents us with an important tale which deserves to see the light of day, but the film itself simply doesn't do the story justice. I found the tale of the Zabinski's fascinating and the plight of their zoo is a devastating one, although, it obviously pales in comparison to the human suffering which is going on. The movie simply keeps us at length the whole time, withholding emotion and important information. As one would expect, the cast is very good and Chastain is her usual solid self. I can recommend The Zookeeper's Wife from an educational perspective, but don't expect to become wrapped up in the story.

The Zookeeper's Wife also never gives us more detail about the mythical creature Heck is attempting to create on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 33 Mbps. The image is sharp and clear, showing on distracting grain and no defects from the source materials. The colors look good, and the image is never overly dark or bright. However, Caro has chosen a rather muted color palette, so we don't get many bright tones here. The level of detail is good and the depth works well. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 4.2 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The real highlight here is the bombing scene. The strong subwoofer really drives home the devastation and the surround effects make us feel as if the planes are flying over us. The third act offers an action sequence in which we are exposed to sounds coming from off-screen that flow from the front and rear channels.

The Zookeeper's Wife Blu-ray Disc contains a few extra features. "The Making of The Zookeeper's Wife" (7 minutes) is a brief featurette which contains interviews with the cast and filmmkakers and a nice amount of on-set footage. The piece explores the story's trip to the screen and the production. "The Zabinski Family" (4 minutes) has author Diane Ackerman providing further details on the real zoo and then we get an interview with the surviving Zabinski children who tell us about their parents. The Disc contains six DELETED SCENES which run about 4 minutes. All of these scenes are brief and only a few feel new.

Review Copyright 2017 by Mike Long