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The Zookeeper’s Wife

I’m sure we’re all at least partially familiar with the concept of “so bad it’s good” cinema. We’ve got films like Troll 2BirdemicThe RoomPlan 9 from Outer Space and other movies so incompetent that everyone loves to laugh at them.

But could the opposite possibly exist? Is it even possible for a movie to be “so good it’s bad”? It seems like nobody ever even thought to ask that question… except for Doug “The Nostalgia Critic” Walker, who examined the possibility in an editorial video some time ago.

In summary, The Critic hypothesized that if a “so bad it’s good” movie is one that sets out to make something new and creative only to fail spectacularly, its opposite is a movie that tries to follow a specific formula and succeeds without a hitch. A “so good it’s bad” movie is one that takes no risks, offers no surprises, and does nothing wrong because it’s perfectly emulating some previous success. It’s a film that perfectly and beautifully delivers precisely what’s expected of it, nothing more and nothing less. A film that only settled for being “good enough” when it clearly had the potential to be so much greater.

In short, Oscar-bait.

The term is a controversial one, in large part because it doesn’t seem to have much in the way of a solid definition. But while I don’t know if Walker ever intended to make a textbook definition for “Oscar-bait” or why it’s often used as a pejorative, the phrase “boringly good” seems to nail it perfectly.

An Oscar-bait film is one constructed in imitation of previous Oscar winners and nominees. This is how we get recurring actors (such as Meryl Streep), recurring subject matter (the Holocaust is always a favorite), and recurring storytelling devices (such as the emotional monologue often referred to as “the Oscar Clip”). Of course, it’s not like any of those things are necessarily bad (when properly used), they’re just things we’ve already seen umpteen times.

The effect is that no matter how well these movies are crafted — with stellar performances, beautiful imagery, moving speeches, etc. — they’re all trying to be the same thing and thus blend together. It feels like the filmmakers are putting their effort into checking off boxes, rather than making some incisive statement or pushing boundaries. Making something just smart enough and passionate enough to pay homage to what the Academy voters like, but toothless enough that they don’t risk pissing off any voters or moviegoers. We’re thus left with disposable entertainment posing as a masterpiece, made to last in the public consciousness just long enough until the end of awards season.

Why am I going on about all of this? Because it’s easier than talking about The Zookeeper’s Wife.

This time, our “based on a true story” film is set against the good old reliable backdrop of WWII; specifically with regard to the Nazi occupation of Poland and the Holocaust. The titular zookeeper is Dr. Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), who runs the Warsaw Zoo alongside his titular wife (Antonina, played by exec producer Jessica Chastain). Things are all nice and idyllic until the zoo is bombed to smithereens and nearly all of the animals are killed.

To make ends meet, the Zabinskis repurpose their zoo into a pig farm, to produce food for the war effort. To feed the pigs themselves, garbage is collected from the new ghettos where Jews are kept in pens (not unlike animals, hint hint). Seeing a golden opportunity to resist the Nazis, the Zabinskis proceed to smuggle Jews out of the ghetto. Their zoo — with its myriad tunnels, cages, and passageways — is made into a way station where Jews can hide while waiting for help to come and take them to a more permanent safe house. From the Nazi occupation in 1939 to the war’s end in 1945, their work successfully rescued nearly 300 Jewish men, women, and children.

But the journey in getting to that end result is something that you already know by heart. We’ve got the pure and good-hearted protagonists acting in the face of a great and terrible evil, and we’ve got the defenseless Jews who contribute what love and support they can in return for the assistance. It’s a movie about the evils of the Holocaust, doing what’s right in defiance of a society with no value of human life, blah blah blah. We all know this movie. We’ve all seen this movie. It seems to come out in some form or another every Oscar season.

This movie’s attempt at a hook is the compare/contrast between animals and humans, but that doesn’t go far either. Commentary on mankind’s primal nature is at least as old as werewolves, after all. Hell, even the concept of framing humans as animals in the context of the Third Reich has been done before (most notably with Art Spiegelman’s “Maus”).

As for the main characters, it becomes clear from the opening minutes — when she saves a newborn elephant from suffocating — that Antonina is being portrayed as nothing less than a bona fide saint. Opposite her is Dr. Lutz Heck, a zoologist working for the Nazis, played by Daniel Bruhl. He starts off with some hint of nuance, but we all know that’s going out the window the moment he puts on a goddamn SS uniform, and that’s indeed precisely what happens.

To be clear, it’s not like there’s anything overtly wrong with the picture. The plot gets improbable at times, as characters do certain things for no apparent reason, but that’s about it. The movie is earnest — even brutal at times — in its depiction of the Holocaust and its evils. Plus, Jessica Chastain commands the screen like only she can, and even the non-name actors put in some pretty good work (young Shira Haas is a particular highlight). Really, the film’s only problem is that it’s predictable and played out. And for that, the whole film is made unmemorable, with nothing in it that really stands out from such an overcrowded pack.

That said, the fact remains that the real-life Zabinskis were heroes with stories that deserved to be told. Far more importantly, we’ve seen a regrettable and reprehensible uptick in Nazi activity and anti-Semitic hate crimes in recent months. Much as I’d like to believe that this film is obsolete on arrival because we all know about the evils of the Holocaust and why they must never be repeated, there’s a good chance I’m wrong and we’re all due for a reminder.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is harmless. It’s well-acted but uninspired, just competently crafted enough to be unmemorable. Even with times being what they are, I’m not convinced that we needed another Oscar-bait movie about how Nazis are bad and the Holocaust was evil, with nothing creative or deeper to say on the subject. It celebrates a Polish couple who deserve to be recognized for the lives that they saved, and Chastain does a particularly good job with her portrayal, but there’s otherwise nothing new here.

If this one gets a nomination (unlikely, given the release date), it’ll be worth watching for the awards completionists. Otherwise, this is a rental at best.

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