Set during the Great Depression, veterinary student Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson) abandons his studies after his parents are killed in a car accident. Taking up with a third-rate traveling circus, his bond with a difficult animal begins to turn the show around, though his feelings for the star performer (Witherspoon) prove dangerous since she's the wife of the sadistic ringmaster (Waltz).
The most important thing to know about Francis Lawrence’s big-screen adaptation of Sara Gruen’s bestselling novel is its relentless depiction of animal abuse.
But what do you expect? The story takes place in 1931 on board a traveling circus train. Not exactly an ideal setting for circus menagerie animals in the days before PETA. For those, like me, who cannot stomach the images of injured animals, you ought to know that a horse gets shot and an elephant is savagely beaten by her schizophrenic trainer.
In my opinion, cinematic portrayal of animal cruelty is an unforgivable act of manipulating the audience’s emotions. It is basically an easy way to create a villain. Naturally, everyone is going to hate the guy who hurts or kills a movie’s beloved animal. Why bother writing nefarious dialogue for the antagonist when he can so easily create villainy by shooting a puppy between the eyes?
But the harm inflicted upon the animals in “Water for Elephants” is deeply relevant to the storyline. It is a critical plot point that motivates character development and reflects the honor within the protagonist, Ivy League veterinary student Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson). So, while I am never a fan of watching animals suffer, Gruen would probably agree that the circumstances are unavoidable in telling her story.
Financially and emotionally ruined by the sudden death of his parents, Jacob finds himself at a crossroads in life. The economy is failing all around him. The Depression is suffocating any aspirations he once had of finding steady work. And he learns early in the film that his father’s veterinary practice is no longer his to inherit. The bank now owns it and there is nothing he can do about it.
What would you do? Run away and join the circus? Well, that’s what Jacob actually does.
Once accepted by the legions of roustabouts on board the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show On Earth, Jacob discovers love, betrayal, and ruthless intimidation. Love comes from the direction of the show’s star attraction, a beautiful horse-riding star named Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). Conflict comes from her husband, the demented yet somehow charismatic ringleader of the Benzini third-rate circus, August Rosenbluth (a truly mesmerizing Christoph Waltz).
Waltz embodies August with that same duality of personalities that won him an Academy Award for his portrayal of the multi-lingual SS Colonel Hans Landa in “Inglourious Basterds”. His behavior is arresting in its unpredictability: charming and inviting at the beginning of a scene, barbaric and menacing at the end of it. His method style of acting puts the audience in direct perspective with Jacob, who spends the first part of the movie trying to decide if August should be loathed or respected.
When Waltz and Witherspoon share the screen, their union is simultaneously splendid and horrific. August is privately motivated by fear of Marlena’s abandonment. Marlena is publicly motivated by fear of August. The powerful dynamic of their onscreen chemistry is actually embarrassing for Pattinson as these two Academy Award winners literally act circles around him.
And that is probably the greatest problem with this cinematic adaptation. Fans of Gruen’s novel can testify that Jacob narrates this entire story in a friendly first-person perspective reminiscent of Frank McCourt and J.D. Salinger. The writing is personable, easily paced, and deeply engaging. By the second chapter, the reader already feels like an active participant of a fireside chat as Jacob lovingly tells the story of the Benzini Brothers’ final year.
However, Vampire Boy does not appear to have the storytelling talent in order to make this character believable. He smiles coyly and does his patented Heartthrob Smirk, but fails to deliver any indication that this is a man who can spin a story. He appears to love Marlena with the best of intentions, but his character is unquestionably outmatched by Waltz’s commanding screen presence.
Witherspoon does what she can to make Marlena’s attraction to Jacob authentic. But, it does not evoke the same sentiment that made Gruen’s novel so endearing. It does not seem like Marlena wants to run away with Jacob. She just wants to run away. This imbalance within their scandalous relationship damages the integrity of the film.
Despite these drawbacks, “Water for Elephants” is still a rewarding and entertaining film. The performances of Waltz and Witherspoon are both worth the price of admission. And women, old and young alike, will undoubtedly appreciate Pattinson’s glowing style and appearance. If they can stand the “Twilight” movies, then they should have no problem with this one.