Humanists and skeptics should see Water for Elephants. But then, so should everybody, because it’s a stunningly engaging and memorable motion picture. It is based on Sara Gruen’s bestselling novel of that title, to which it is faithful except for a few cinematic improvements. Transcending its rather standard circus formulas of payroll crisis and love triangle, it brims with human (and animal) drama, presenting values and failings that are as contrasting as sequin-costumed acts and shovelfuls of menagerie excrement.
Framed by the reminiscences of the lead character Jacob (played in old age by Hal Holbrook, otherwise by Robert Pattinson), Water for Elephants is a Depression-era story of a veterinary-student dropout who hops a train only to learn it is a circus train. He has little idea of the adventures awaiting him. Soon he is the vet of BENZINI BROS MOST SPECTACULAR SHOW ON EARTH (as it is emblazoned on the wagons), and when an elephant, Rosie, joins the show, he becomes her trainer as well. Or is it the other way around?
The circus’ bareback-riding star, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), is dazzling on and off Rosie, who, nevertheless, keeps stealing the show and viewers’ hearts. (I haven’t felt such emotions toward a pachyderm since 2008 when I met a sweet if somewhat shaken Asian elephant named Limba, who’d had to be extricated from an overturned circus truck on a Newfoundland highway.) At first Rosie seems dull-witted, but Jacob accidentally discovers she is responsive to Polish commands (a colorful bit of byplay Gruen artfully adapted from the true story of an elephant named Old Mom who was transferred from German- to American-speaking trainers). In time, Rosie is spotted also stealing something else: the show’s lemonade. Although chained to a stake, she’d pull it up, carry it with her to the lemonade mixing vat, drink her fill, then return and stick the stake back in the ground.
Marlena’s husband, the owner and ringmaster August (Christoph Waltz), proves a sadist, willing not only to abuse his animals but his employees as well. He even redlights those who cease to be useful to him (i.e., has them tossed from the train near the red lights of a station). Marlena doesn’t fare so well either. Soon, August drives her into the arms of Jacob, with dangerous consequences to everyone—show folk and rubes alike. (For more on show talk and other background material, see my Secrets of the Sideshows, 2005.)
For its faithful attention to detail, excellent acting, wonderful filming, and sometimes stupendous staging—witness the scene with combined horrific stampeding of unleashed menagerie animals and spectators fleeing the big top—Water for Elephants is destined for success.
Be sure to make the jump (circus lingo for move to a new engagement), and get your ticket for a ringside seat. Hurry, step right up!
Rating: Four wooden nickels (out of four)