World War II was the source of dozens of instances of benevolence and bravery. But few top the actions taken by the Polish couple who risked retaliation from the Nazis for hiding 300 Jews at the Warsaw Zoo. How zookeeper Jan Zabinski and his wife, Antonina, pulled this off is as remarkable as it is inspiring, but “The Zookeeper’s Wife” seldom does their story justice.

The movie, an adaptation of Diane Ackerman’s book of the same name, is a maudlin drama with more cute animals than insight. But it’s saved somewhat by a strong cast and evocative cinematography by Cambridge-born Andrij Parekh (“Blue Valentine”). Plus, its message of treating people (and animals) with compassion and dignity couldn’t be more timely.

Director Niki Caro (“Whale Rider”), working from a script by Angela Workman (“Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”), certainly has her heart in the right place, but can’t quite deliver the gut punch you’d expect. You prepare for the horrific and get something on a par with a Lifetime movie. The stakes never seem high enough.

The film opens in the summer of 1939 with Antonina (Jessica Chastain) riding her bicycle throughout the Warsaw Zoo, bidding good morning to the workers, patting the snout of a hippo, feeding apples to the elephants and so on. Later, she saves a newborn elephant’s life. Antonina is beautiful and beloved by animals and humans, especially her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh) and a rival zoologist in Lutz Heck (a snake-y Daniel Bruhl, “Rush”).

In September, the Germans invade, dropping bombs on Warsaw, including the zoo, and herding thousands of Jews into the city’s ghettos, where they are starved, beaten and worked to death or sent to the gas chambers. The zoo becomes an armory for Hitler’s troops. The Zabinksis turn to raising and slaughtering hogs to feed the soldiers to make it look like they are supporting the war effort. In reality, they are turning their park into a “human zoo,” smuggling refugees through secret tunnels and keeping their guests in unknown hideaways where they can emerge only at night. This is the routine until about 1945. It’s all rather engaging — for a while.

You know you’re being manipulated from the get-go, with close ups of adorable chimps, tiger cubs and majestic giraffes. And then close ups of children’s faces as they are hoisted onto the train that will take them to a concentration camp. And then the cheapest of ploys, the off-camera rape of a young girl. Scenes with the characters interacting with the Nazi soldiers elicit only mild tension. Caro also ladles on Harry Gregson-Williams’s soft, single-key piano score that practically lulls you to sleep. What’s missing is that heart-pounding fear of refugees on the run.

Chastain continues to be one of Hollywood’s most prolific actresses, and she pumps some much-needed life into the movie. She shares real chemistry with Heldenbergh as the physically and morally aligned husband and wife. Goran Kostic plays a reliable zoo worker. For his part, Bruhl is at first a great friend of the Zabinski’s and later he is full-on evil as Hitler’s official zoologist.

It’s no “Schindler’s List” but Caro wants to be, except Steven Spielberg shows what the Holocaust was like; Caro simply reminds us what happened. And, because Hollywood has a penchant for happy endings ... well, there’s that, too.

— Dana Barbuto may be reached at dbarbuto@ledger.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.

“The Zookeeper’s Wife”

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Daniel Bruhl, Johan Heldenbergh, Shira Haas.

(PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, violence, brief sexuality, nudity and smoking.)

Grade: B-