Sam Neill stars as Jonah Ludovic, the protagonist in Ralph Ziman’s The Zookeeper. Or at least, during the film’s first act, he is one of two workers who stay to work on the zoo on a volunteer basis. He an another man do so as a civil war rages on in an Eastern European country that the movie doesn’t name. The characters’ names suggest the Balkans. However, the other worker who stays with Ludovic is a nameless South Asian Vet (Om Puri). There are a few more South Asians living in Russia than there are in the Balkans. Anyway, Ludovic and the Vet spend the first act sharing their life stories. Ludovic, as it turns out, is one of those middle aged Eastern Europeans who lose their identity after the Iron Curtain fell.
Ludovic then becomes alone after a general Dragov (Ulrich Thomsen) takes the Vet away because of the Vet’s ethnicity. The Zookeeper, to its credit, makes great use of Prague as the unnamed Eastern European city. Its structures tower over Ludovic to emphasize his alienation. The viewers also get to see the architecture here to hint at the diversity within Eastern Europe. One that is still in danger of disappearing because of civil wars and ethnic cleansing. Another thing this film gets credit for is how it pays attention to war’s collateral damage. The animals get progressively dirtier and thinner because Ludovic can’t care for all of them. And just like today’s Eastern European wars, there are the people too, whom he eventually meet.
The Zookeeper then introduces Zioig (Javor Loznica) and Ankica (Gina McKee), a boy and his mother running away from Dragov and his soldiers who are murdering and raping her people. Their only place of refuge is Ludovic’s zoo. This is an interesting enough cast and premise that makes some critics wonder why their colleagues and viewers looked this film over. There are many reasons, including that this came out in 2001, a banner year with, obviously, a lot of competition. The film’s vagueness doesn’t do it any favours also in fairness, it does feel like a nitpick for me to ask for specificity in some aspects. It’s also understandable that this came out just two years within this millennium but the filmmaking feels very 90s.
Some things in The Zookeeper feel after its time and others feel like it can come out an any time. Of course Ludovic and Ankica develop feelings for each other and the three fight and make up in inorganic ways. Nonetheless, it’s strange to write off ’90s filmmaking’ as if it’s a bad thing. One of the film’s climatic moments include a great war scene. One where rocket fire hits a part of the zoo where the monkeys ‘live’. Ludovic, then, has to rush into that building that’s already on fire. In this decade a scene like that may have had CGI but I commend The Zookeeper‘s use of real fire. This film is very much of a time when fake felt real.
The Zookeeper comes soon on OVID.