Water for Elephants may not depict—or be—the greatest show on Earth, but it may be one of the more adventurous dramas and love stories brought to the big screen into the mid-year. It’s certainly a period spectacle, giving viewers the illusion of being under the big top. However, what really makes Water for Elephants (Directed by Francis Lawrence, who coincidentally directed Britney Spears’ “Circus” video in 2008) even more exciting and remarkable is that it brings to life a unique fictional narrative—all involving a story of personal growth, developing camaraderie between a newcomer and a “family,” a love triangle, and a heartwarming adoration for animals—in the traveling circus landscape.
The film opens with a lost old man (Hal Holbrook) wandering carnival grounds in the rain. After he is taken into the office trailer by the concerned manager, the old man becomes obviously emotional at the sight of an aged photo of a woman atop an elephant, as the manager explains the infamy behind the circus in the snapshot. But ninety-something Jacob Jankowski—as he identifies himself—can still recall what really happened at around the time and place of that photo, in a very Titanic-esque way of storytelling. Turns out Jacob’s life has been the circus, both in literal and figurative senses, but not necessarily by choice. Holbrook’s voice suddenly transforms into Robert Pattinson’s, who plays young Jacob for the majority of the film. Flashing back to the early years of the Great Depression, Jacob’s background is illustrated as a Cornell student in veterinary science, until his parents suddenly die in a car accident and he ends his educational pursuits. Left with nothing, he fatefully comes across the Benzini Brothers traveling circus, where he is hired to care for the animals. He eventually climbs up the company’s social ladder and develops cautious relationships with August (Christoph Waltz), the charming but power-tripping head trainer and ringmaster, and his wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the beautiful show headliner. Jacob and Marlena connect and eventually fall in love through their compassion for the circus animals, especially for the newly acquired elephant Rosie (Portrayed by modern Hollywood’s most famous pachyderm, Tai), but feel endangered by the increasing wrath that August unleashes on both the animal and human performers.
Anticipation, fear, and joy all make up the strongest feelings that one will get while witnessing this up-and-down story unfold. If you’ve read the original novel by Sara Gruen, the on-screen events shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. But if you’re unfamiliar with the book, the light suspense and anxiety is gratifying, and even if you’ve read the book once or a few times, there’s no knowing how the action and drama will pan out and come across in motion. The results are often breathtaking. Seeing the Benzini Brothers Circus come alive within the first half-hour of the movie is almost like experiencing it in the real world. Whether you’re 10, 15, 25, or 75 years old, there’s a genuine feeling of euphoria upon seeing contortionists and animals and trainers working their magic in a very true-to-life circus tent.
The love story between Jacob and Marlena is profound and beautiful, but is actually one of the weaker links due to the lukewarm chemistry between the stars. Pattinson fulfills great potential as he breaks out of the Edward Cullen mold and demonstrates that he is able to hold his own as a leading man, though he somewhat regresses from his more aggressive and soul-searing role in last year’s Remember Me. His role as the sensitive and fiercely protective animal caretaker and wannabe lover of Marlena is still a very respectable departure from playing a sparkly, virginal vampire. Witherspoon is a spectacle in herself with her gorgeous throwback hairstyles and showy costumes and she’s hardly dreadful in the role, but for her celebrated filmography, playing Marlena will be an afterthought in people’s minds years from now. Moreover, Pattinson and Witherspoon, who are almost a decade apart in age, are likable enough as the film’s central couple, but not enough sparks fly around them. That is certainly problematic for a film that revolves around romance. However, their individual performances, the entire setting, and how the other performers play off of them make their scenes together easy to watch—there just isn’t that ‘wow’ factor that should have been there.
The true human star of Water for Elephants, rather, is the Academy Award-winning Waltz, who should receive another nomination for his tumultuous role as August (Yes, I know it’s early). Waltz manages to be both the light and the darkness in every scene he’s in with the strength and degree of his expressions and actions, but in a very evil role. He’s believably charismatic at a few points—for example, finally recognizing Jacob’s potential as a valuable asset to the company and inviting him for dinner and drinks—before becoming wildly insane (Beating Rosie mercilessly with a bull hook after she has run off the grounds). His treatment of creatures and people alike are shocking, and of course no way endorsed, yet morbidly mesmerizing because he goes above and beyond. However, even more of a star performer is the elephant Tai, who with the combination of raw presence and visual effects is an endearing treasure. There is much more chemistry with Pattinson and Witherspoon in those relationships than they have with each other.
Though it’s not completely balanced, the magnificent world and time of Water for Elephants, combined with vivid and enjoyable performances by all, makes it a sparkling show full of beauty and life.