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Water for Elephants Has Old-Fashioned Charm

<i>Water for Elephants</i> Has Old-Fashioned Charm

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.

But August is convinced his problems are over—or at least delayed—when he buys Rosie, a beautiful elephant for the show’s new main attraction. None of the other circuses, not even reigning successes Ringling Bros. have one, so August believes he’s hit the jackpot. And seeing Jacob’s natural affinity for training animals, August hopes he’ll do the same with Rosie, so he gives him a big promotion from his usual duties, namely shoveling tons of excrement.

Of course, the world of circuses is an existence filled with illusion and nothing’s as it seems, including August’s precarious relationship with his wife. Admiring how graceful she is under pressure, it’s not exactly a surprise that Jacob falls for the worldly beauty Marlena, rather than say the nasty women who shamelessly hit on him whenever he walks back to his train car. In fact, for as much as August puts Jacob and Marlena together, you half think he’s purposely setting the new love story into motion to justify his random outbursts of anger.

Whatever the reason, it certainly makes for an intriguing and equally heartbreaking dynamic in this dramatic love story. With perfect attention to period detail, everything from the exquisite costuming to the elaborate sets, appropriately wistful soundtrack and whip-smart manner of speaking draw you in and remind you of the days when movies weren’t all about explosions and childish, over-the-top antics.    

Best of all, the actors do such a great job of getting into character. While Waltz could’ve been extremely one-note in his portrayal of the evil August, he’s versatile enough to add layers of nuance to the mix. Sure, one can’t help hating August most of the time, but yet you can still see how people are still drawn to him, too, a tribute to the Oscar winner’s acting prowess.

In terms of really surprising you, though, Water for Elephants is definitely Pattinson’s moment to shine. Proving he’s more than a pretty boy with a perpetual James Dean complex, he also plays the good guy with sincerity and aplomb. And while it’s not much of a stretch for Pattinson to look hopelessly in love with a woman as resplendent as Witherspoon’s Marlena, it’s his unabashed awe and tenderness with Rosie that end up stealing the show, just one of the many delightful surprises in Water for Elephants.


  • Drugs/Alcohol: Cigarette smoking and plenty of Prohibition-era social drinking.
  • Language/Profanity: A couple of instances where God’s name is paired with da--.
  • Sex/Nudity: One of the circus performers is looking at a girly magazine (women’s bare breasts are briefly shown in the photographs). Another circus performer is known for her crowd-pleasing topless act (she takes off her top in front of an enthusiastic crowd of men—but the scene cuts away so nothing is actually shown). Marlena wears skimpy costumes that don’t leave much to the imagination. August talks about Marlena performing her “wifely duties” in front of Jacob, who he suspects is falling in love with her. After briefly escaping from her abusive husband  (she and August are still married, though), Marlena and Jacob retreat to a hotel and consummate their burgeoning relationship. The scene is brief and in shadow—no nudity, just kissing and the beginning stages of clothing removal (we see Pattinson’s bare chest).
  • Violence: Jacob’s parents die in a car crash (their bloodied bodies are shown in the morgue when Jacob stops by to identify them). Against August’s orders to keep using the animal in the show, pain or not, Jacob puts a dying horse out of its misery by shooting it (we hear the shot, but don’t see the actual act). August has a bad temper and is often cruel to both humans and animals. We see him handle Marlena roughly and later, he slaps her and knocks her to the ground. In another scene, he holds a wooden pole to her neck and tries to strangle her.  August also repeatedly beats Rosie with a hook (we see her bloody wounds and hear cries of pain). One character meets a particularly grisly end when his neck is slit. When two workers free the animals from their cages (including the lions) during a circus performance, the impending stampede causes several townspeople to get trampled. Jacob is also beat up in several scenes, and later he discovers that August routinely has people killed when he can’t afford to pay them.

Christa Banister is a full-time freelancer writer, specializing in music, movies and books-related reviews and interviews and is the author of two novels, Around the World in 80 Dates and Blessed Are the Meddlers. Based in Dallas, Texas, she also weighs in on various aspects of pop culture on her personal blogFor more information, including her upcoming book signings and sample chapters of her novels, check out her Web site.