Water for Elephants is more than a love story, it’s a tale about overcoming the odds and turning supposed failure into success.
After a tragic accident leaves both of his parents dead, Jacob (Robert Pattinson) leaves school—along with his hopes and dreams of becoming a veterinarian—jumps a train, and becomes part of the Benzini Bros. Circus. It’s 1931 and the Great Depression has August (Christoph Waltz) and his Benzini Bros. Circus struggling to stay afloat while competing with acts such as the Ringling Bros.
Jacob’s arrival brings a mix of calm and chaos. After making a tough decision—which nearly gets him red-lined (tossed off the train to the jagged rocks that line the rails)—Jacob lands a job as the Benzini Bros. vet. When August acquires Rosie, a talented adult elephant with a mind of her own, Jacob’s skills are put to task. Meanwhile, long glances and awkward moments take August’s wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), and Jacob down and dark and dangerous path.
With cotton-white hair, a weathered face and a worried but determined look in his eyes, Hal Holbrook begins Jacob’s tale in the present as a now elderly man who has wondered from the old folks home to the circus passing through town. The narration starts with old Jacob then young Jacob takes over, it feels like young Jacob is telling his story before it’s happened. Holbrook has a great voice and it’s a shame it wasn’t used more.
Robert Pattinson’s role in the Twilight films has awarded him many fans, but it’s blacklisted him with film snobs and critics, however, if Pattinson continues to appear in films like Water for Elephants, the film snobs and critics will have no choice but to acknowledge his talent. Pattinson is a solid performer and, dare I say, there’s a hint of young Brad Pitt behind those blue eyes.
Anyone familiar with Inglourious Basterds (2009) will know what to expect from Christoph Waltz—near perfection. August, the overbearing iron-handed ringmaster, is a complex character well-handled by Mr. Waltz. It’s easy to get excited about August while simultaneously wishing him a slow and painful death.
Reese Witherspoon is the weakest link as Marlena, August’s trophy wife who does (mostly) as she’s told, it’s difficult to pinpoint the problem, but I can tell you that Scarlett Johansson would be a great fit for the role.
Like any circus, the Benzini Bros. is full of interesting characters, from the animals to the barkers themselves, the circus is the driving force in Water for Elephants. Circus life encompasses the audience, causing the viewer to nearly forget there’s a world beyond the tent poles and boxcars where people don’t ride elephants or sleep on mounds of hay. This is what keeps Water for Elephants from succumbing to the fate of Pearl Harbor (2001) (which was an excuse for a love story with a historical event as a backdrop).
If whiskey drinking elephants, toothless lions, and a bit of a love story is your idea of a good time, the Benzini Bros. have you covered. Just don’t mess around and get yourself red-lighted.
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writer: Richard LaGravenese (screenplay), Sara Gruen (novel)
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz
Runtime: 120 minutes