Water for Elephants is based on the New York Times best selling novel of the same name by Sara Gruen. (Full disclosure, I haven’t read the book). The story is told in a Titanic-esque flashback by a much-aged Jacob, played by Hal Holbrook. A de-vamped Robert Pattinson plays the younger Jacob during the depression, a man who after his parents die in a car accident and finds their family home in foreclosure, abandons his almost-finished veterinary degree to start a new life. He hops a train to get to the closest city to find work, but instead finds the Benzini Brothers Circus. Jacob is hired as the circus vet by the ringleader and taskmaster August, played by Christoph Waltz. Reese Witherspoon plays August’s wife and the star act of the show. The addition of a bull elephant named Rosie to the show begins a series of events leading to the destruction of the circus in an infamous distaster.
Waltz’s portrayal of the harsh and cruel ringmaster who takes no issue with killing a man rather than paying him, is the highlight of the cast, successfully portraying an unbalanced and sadistic monster. Witherspoon and Pattinson are strangely matched with no heat at all, but do their characters justice well enough. The trio have enough tension between them for everyone though. We may not buy into the chemistry, but we certainly buy the fear and jealousy. Witherspoon is lovely and particularly graceful in this one, which we’ve come to expect. Pattinson lacks any post-Twilight baggage and this is a safe transition for him into grittier roles, if he can prove he has the range. Most of what he gets to do in this film is react to his surroundings. James Frain also has a too small cameo as Rosie’s former caretaker. If only there were a bigger part for him.
The period aspect of the film is virtually flawless. The colorful backdrop of the big top provides rich stages, lovely costumes and authentic scenery working in the film’s favor. There could have been even more spectacle, perhaps capitalizing on the strange oddities in addition to the acrobatics. I would imagine the book capitalizes on the behind the scenes mysteries of the circus lifestyle more than two hours can allow. I would have preferred less of the glamorous champagne drinking and more of the gritty underbelly.
The animals are also real and are truly the center of the film as much as the romantic plot line. Though some of the scenes with the animals were disturbing to say the least and for a far-too-sensitive type like myself, too hard to watch. They are necessary for the plot, of course, but take caution with the younger folks (and me). I hope more of it was CG than it looked since seeing wild animals in tiny cages in these days is unsettling enough. There is a reason we don’t see much of them in circuses these days.
Although it is nice to inject some lush period romance into the lineup of action and comic book films that dominate the box office, this one is only a mildly entertaining trip back to the 1930s.
Cat’s rating: 2.5/4