The movie centers on a husband and wife pair of Warsaw zookeepers who hide Jews in their zoo and help them escape the Nazis. It offers pitch-perfect acting, handsome cinematography, fine-tuned storytelling, and overall high craftsmanship.
But it’s got the heroes-of-the-Holocaust genre’s predictable signposts:
a sophisticated but venal Nazi commander;
noble saviors of the downtrodden and the threatened;
thuggish Nazi soldiers;
escape strategies whispered just out of Nazi earshot;
a lovely heroine nearly but not quite giving up that which is dearer than life itself to the amorous boss Nazi;
and so on.
Also, the movie sentimentalizes the zoo creatures. Every animal in the movie seems lovable, but everyone I’ve met who works with animals has stories about bad-tempered, intractable or gleefully nasty beasts.
Nevertheless, the animals provide some of the movie’s most interesting moments. When the Nazis bomb Warsaw, for instance, some big, predatory beasts escape the zoo and wander the city streets. You don’t usually see that in a war movie, although the graphic novel Pride of Baghdad did a version of it set in the Iraq war.
The movie does have fresh touches that don’t involve animals. A well-dressed young lady smiles prettily for a photo, like a tourist posing for a snapshot — in front of the guarded barb-wire gate of the Warsaw Ghetto.
And as I mentioned, the sheer level of skill in this movie is high. In one of the most memorable sequences, the heroine tries to draw out a withdrawn young girl who’s suffered unforgivable abuse. A lot of movies have presented that type of scene, but the acting, writing, and direction in this movie showed great sensitivity.
So: not much new here besides the premise — but not much to complain about, either.