It Literally is a Circus in There

Movie Review: Water for Elephants (2011)
Summary: A veterinary student abandons his studies after his parents are killed and joins a traveling circus as their vet.
Spoilers: none

It’s title sounds so mundane that it manages to get some due attention.

Water for Elephants stars Reese Witherspoon, Eclipse’s Robert Pattinson, and Inglourious Basterds’ Christoph Waltz (who so effectively played “General Landa” that it made our skin crawl).

Arrayed in new and mostly well-defined character constructs, the three come before us in a romance with a very peculiar setting—in the days of the traveling circus (early 1930s).

After the tragedy of losing his parents and their family home, “Jacob Jankowski” (Pattinson), a veterinary student on the brink of getting his license, finds work with Berdini’s Circus in efforts to make a new life for himself. But his challenges won’t just come from the sad past he is trying to forget, but from his current work under the circus’ owner, “August” (Waltz), a cruel and villainous boss and husband to the woman of Jacob’s desire, “Marlena” (Witherspoon).

The movie comes to us from the New York Times bestselling novel by Sara Gruen, offering a very interesting and well-created look back into a bygone era. Nudging itself into worthy viewing status, Water for Elephants is history-lesson-style story delivery told in the first person by an aged Jacob (Hal Holbrook), who describes in vivid detail a world unknown to most of us. The film’s complex characterizations and robust performances are what endow it with its charming aura, particularly in the case of Waltz who brilliantly portrays a temperamental ringleader interested only in cash-flow.

Working up the latter in an unregulated industry full of abuses and who knows how many labor laws violations, Jacob graduates from mostly menial duties to providing water and medical care for an elephant named “Rosey,” the circus’ main attraction.

But don’t be confused; Water for Elephants is not a warmhearted animal movie, nor is it a conventionally winning romance to be followed by an evening of nooky. It is a story of secret love, which, for lack of better phraseology, degenerates into a story of payback against a cruel and heartless man. It’s more about an insane circus owner than the animals or the romance.

Backsliding to increase the drama (which is curiously lacking on the part of Pattinson himself throughout the film), the movie revolves around rising conflicts with August from Jacob and Marlena’s flirtatious play. We have alternating moments of tension at the dinner table between the three, mixed with the beginning hints of romance, and animal cruelty, but no real heart or chemistry between the two main stars.

We have a cruel boss who nearly kills Jacob for his humanitarian instincts, and a story of forbidden love. But our story never becomes anything—not a romance, but a splintered drama that focuses on the neurosis of the villain. There’s not much of a point to this, and it’s questionable whether or not the movie accomplished what it wanted to, but it is the robust performances that make the grade here.

Of note is the care the movie takes in portraying people mindful of the consequences of their actions. Character traits like flaws do not comprise the whole character makeup, but small segments of a personality. The originality of the film’s premise, the detail taken to recreate a 1930s-era environment, solid acting, and firmly imprinted characters make the movie.


Grade: C+ (2 ½ stars)
Rated: PG-13 (for sexual suggestiveness, violence, smoking and alcohol, and language)
Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: “Marlena” (Reese Witherspoon), “Old Jacob Jankowski” (Hal Holbrook), “Young Jacob Jankowski” (Robert Pattinson), “August” (Christoph Waltz), “Charlie” (Paul Schneider), “Kinko / Walter” (Jim Norton), “Grady” (Richard Blake)
Genre: Drama / Romance