The best moments of the Holocaust drama “The Zookeeper’s Wife” have little to do with its Oscar-nominated star.
Yes, Jessica Chastain is technically perfect playing the real-life woman who helped save hundreds of Jews from Nazi butchers. She cries on cue and tackles a gentle but consistent Polish accent.
She lunges for those hankie-clutching moments, the kind you expect from a “For Your Consideration” campaign. You can’t help cheer her character on from the opening frame.
That isn’t the reason to see “The Zookeeper’s Wife.”
It’s the other sequences that crush our hearts. Like young children eagerly waving their arms in the air as they board a train headed for a concentration camp. Why? A kindly old man made a game of it rather than expose them to the horror of their destination.
That’s powerful. “The Zookeeper’s Wife” delivers similar moments in between the generic biopic checklist.
Chastain stars as Antonina, the wife of a Polish zookeeper. Her life is idyllic, from her daily bicycle ride through the zoo compound to bonding with its lovely creatures.
That bliss ends as rumors of Hitler’s designs on Poland come true. Her zoo is shuttered. Some animals are killed and her Jewish friends are targeted for removal.
She survives by befriending Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), a German official with a deep background in animal research. Antonina keeps a semblance of the zoo’s purpose alive. Meanwhile, she uses her home to hide local Jews from being discovered.
It’s just part of her efforts to save lives, but it could cost her dearly.
FAST FACT: The real Jan Zabinski was far more active in the Polish resistance than shown in the film. He went so far as poison meat given to Nazi soldiers to hurt the regime.
“The Zookeeper’s Wife” is the kind of true story that demands a big-screen adaptation. For that reason alone it soars. The decency, heroism and frights are baked into the tale’s DNA. And for much of the film’s running time director Niki Caro (“The Whale Rider”) doesn’t get in the way.
The screenplay? That’s another matter.
Angela Workman’s dialogue is often too on the nose, too obvious to dig deep into the characters. That hurts, especially given how Antonina and her husband Jan (a terrific Johan Heldenbergh) are portrayed.
A silly subplot involving Lutz’s advances toward Antonina is a misunderstanding out of the “Three’s Company” school of plot devices.
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The film’s third act bullies past those problems. There’s palpable tension as the Nazi regime advances on the zoo. The story threads come together in more satisfying ways than before.
In short, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Chastain remains a terrific actress, even if she can’t fully escape the cliches drilled down into her character. And, as a producer on the film, she’s aware of just how important this story is to tell to a new generation.
Her newest film is far from perfect. It’s still a fresh take on the horrors of the Holocaust, one capturing the humanity that bloomed in the 20th century’s darkest hours.
HiT or Miss: “The Zookeeper’s Wife” falls into the standard biopic traps, but the real atrocities this “Wife” stood up against are too powerful to ignore.
THE BOSS BABY
Today’s animated movies are getting too complicated for their own good.
Remember “Free Birds?” A pair of turkeys travel back in time to stop their brethren from becoming the signature Thanksgiving treat. Or “Minions,” which made the scene stealers from “Despicable Me” into heroes looking for a supervillain to serve.
“The Boss Baby” offers an even more inane premise. Some babies are born as fully functional adults who can walk, talk and reason. Their mission: make sure adults keep on loving babies, much more than those pesky puppies which sometimes take up too much attention.
So why is “The Boss Baby” so gosh darn adorable?
- Alec Baldwin voices the titular baby
- The jokes never let up, not even during the critical third act
- Babies are even cuter wearing black suits.
The minds behind the movie create a silly alternate universe, and then spend the rest of the film connecting it to real-life emotions all parents face.
That’s smart and very often satisfying.
Tobey Maguire voices the adult Tim, looking back at the time when his reign as his parents’ only child ended. The seven-year-old loved being the center of his parents’ life. But when Momma (Lisa Kudrow) brings a new baby home from the hospital everything changes.
The Baby is the focus now, and it drives Tim crazy.
Only this isn’t an ordinary baby, as if the slick suit isn’t a dead giveaway. Baldwin’s Baby is on a mission from Baby Corp. to thwart a plot involving a puppy that never ages.
Dumb, right? Undeniable.
Yet “The Boss Baby” insists we go along for the ride. To do so, it ladles out the great one liners (“cookies are for closers,” Baldwin’s baby barks at one point) and killer sight gags. And, in between, it humanizes both the Baby and Tim’s unlikely bond.
Baldwin is simply sublime as the Boss Baby, snapping off corporate speak and cruel observations. It’s when he softens toward Tim that the story’s heart blossoms in a Grinchian fashion. Without that evolution, “Boss Baby” would be a series of fun gags and little else.
The animated farce gives kids plenty to enjoy, as expected. “The Boss Baby” delivers something else to adults, particularly those who remember the toddler years all too well.
Parents might want to sit through this “Baby” rather than drop their kiddoes off at the theater like usual.
HiT or Miss: “The Boss Baby” grounds an absolutely absurd premise with nods to the sacrifices and joys of parenthood.