DVD Release Date: November 1, 2011
Theatrical Release Date: April 22, 2011
Rating: PG-13 (for moments of intense violence and sexual content)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 122 min.
Director: Francis Lawrence
Actors: Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, Paul Schneider, Hal Holbrook, Richard Blake

In what’s a surprisingly faithful adaptation of Sara Gruen’s much-beloved novel, Water for Elephants is not only an enchanting film with a decidedly old-fashioned feel, but it also helps answer that lingering question of whether Twilight’s Robert Pattinson is capable of playing a character who’s not dead and brooding.

By the way, the answer is yes.

Borrowing a page from Titanic’s playbook, namely that initial story-framing device where our protagonist, who’s now advanced in years, is in full-on reminiscing mode, Water for Elephants is ultimately a story of what happens when life doesn’t go according to plan.  

Before his parents unexpectedly die in a car crash, Jacob’s (Hal Holbrook, and then, Pattinson) future prospects were actually looking pretty promising—despite the Great Depression. Soon to be a veterinary studies graduate, from Cornell no less, Jacob’s father had always been insistent on giving his son the life opportunities that he’d never had.

Unfortunately, his father’s compassion, or as the lawyers later called it “a lack of business savvy,” eventually caught up with him when he died prematurely. See, when the going got tough, Jacob’s father let people pay him in chickens, rather than cash. Now with no place to live—or money—since the state was awarded both in the wake of his father’s escalating debts, Jacob was now forced to forge ahead on his own. Seeing no other option but to leave school without his degree, Jacob decides it makes the most sense to hitchhike to the big city of Albany where there’s rumored to be work available.

As you probably guessed, Jacob never makes it to Albany. Tired, hungry, discouraged and extremely dirty in that preppy attire of his, Jacob deviates from his plan when he climbs onto a passing train. As it turns out, the occupants aren’t exactly friendly, and he nearly gets thrown off during his first 30 seconds onboard. But once it’s revealed that he’s an Ivy League grad who’s good with animals—or close enough, anyway—one of the guys takes pity on him and promises a job with the traveling circus he works for.

While the idea of “running off and joining the circus” is always jokingly thrown around when someone isn’t quite sure what to do professionally, Jacob eventually discovers the surprisingly seedy underbelly of life under the big top. Not only is the Benzini Brothers circus owner, August (Inglourious BastardsChristoph Waltz, once again in fearsome form) a charmer one minute and downright abusive to the animals and his wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon, How Do You Know), the next, but everyone’s paychecks are routinely delayed, sometimes indefinitely, when some of the workers “disappear” whenever tickets aren’t selling particularly well.