Like a lot of children, I went through a phase during which I desperately wanted to run a zoo. My mother tried to tell me that to get there I’d spend years cleaning up after lions, but I could not be deterred. At least not until something else grabbed my attention just as much. Still, sitting in the theater watching Water for Elephants, I stamped my feet and clapped when the elephant made her glorious debut. I mean, what could be better than an elephant doing a headstand? What?
Water for Elephants is the story, in flashback, of Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) a senior veterinary sciences student at Cornell in 1931 who loses everything when his parents die suddenly in a car accident. Left with nothing, Jacob starts walking to the nearest city, but before he gets there he ends up on a circus train and finds work as a vet. Jacob is quickly engrossed in circus life with violent ringleader, August (Christopher Waltz) and his wife and star attraction, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). Not long after the circus acquires an elephant, Rosie (Tai), Jacob begins to see the monstrous side of August, who throws men off moving trains when he can’t pay them and abuses animals just as readily. Jacob also begins to fall in love with Marlena, an attraction that could only lead to disaster if August found out.
Water for Elephants is basically The Notebook with pachyderms. The story is more compelling and dramatic than The Notebook, but at the heart of both stories is a sort of syrupy nostalgia that can leave the viewer in a sugar coma. But, seriously, Water for Elephants is a lot more interesting. The love triangle is more intense and the stakes are a lot higher. The frame story of 90+ year-old Jacob recounting his part in “one of the biggest circus disasters in history” sets the whole story under an ominous tone and I was on edge a lot. During the climactic scene I was so nervous I felt like crying. That is effective storytelling. But all that tension is undermined by the corny wrap-up provided by the end of the frame narrative.
In this film Robert Pattinson gets to show off his acting chops significantly more than in The Twilight Saga or in Remember Me, which was unspeakably dreadful. His character can be kind of a dummy, but Pattinson delivers in the role. Plus, the camera is in love with his face. Christopher Waltz is brilliant as a sometimes charming, sometimes terrifying, always slightly creepy authoritarian, much like he was in his Oscar-winning role in Inglourious Basterds. His character largely drives the plot, but most of the time I hoped a lion would eat him or that the elephant would sit on him. The most unsettling part of the movie, to me, was the fleeting minute in which he actually won over my sympathy. Well played, sir. Reese Witherspoon spent months in circus school, training with horses, elephants, and acrobats for the role and her hard work paid off. She looks poised and comfortable with the animals and the demanding performances. Her character seems a little flat though. I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt and argue that her character should be flat because she’s a trapped woman, but really Tai the elephant just steals all her scenes.
Actually, the elephant is the best part of the whole movie, hands down. My favorite scene is when Jacob discovers that the elephant is not poorly trained, she just speaks Polish.
Water for Elephants is a circus story, and with that comes expectation for a certain level of spectacle. These parts are where I feel like the film really pulls-through. The costumes, art direction, and animals capture the spectacular showmanship of a Depression-Era circus while also dealing with the dark side behind the scenes. To me, the circus story was the most gripping part of the whole film. I only wish the love story had been as captivating.
For the spectacular circus scenes, intense storytelling, and unfortunately formulaic frame narrative, I rate Water for Elephants 3.5 stars/5.
Water for Elephants was written by Richard LaGravenese based upon the novel by Sara Gruen and directed by Francis Lawrence. It runs two hours and is rated PG-13.
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