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Water for Elephants: Mediocrity for Us

By Jim Rohner · April 25, 2011

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the only circus of which most people are aware, is dubbed "The Greatest Show on Earth" and anyone who's witnessed the veritable menagerie of attractions the circus has to offer – with its motley clowns, exotic animals, and death-defying trapeze acts – will certainly agree to it being quite the spectacle.  But a public performance is only one implication that can be derived from the word "show."  Another implication is that of the qualities that are allowed to be perceived, and that in itself implies that there are qualities and elements that are hidden.

For instance, it's amazing to see a jungle cat perform tricks like a docile household cat, but can we ever be certain of the conditions and treatment that animal received in order to tame it?  Or how about those clowns – do the smiles stay on after the makeup comes off?  And who's to say some trapeze artists don't require some sort of substance to cope with such high-risk feats?  What types of cracks will develop on the surface if such turmoil is prevalent below?

Nowadays, I'm sure that a brand as world famous as Ringling Bros. probably controls their employees as tightly as an Apple or a Disney, but if Water for Elephants is to be believed, then that wasn't always, or possibly ever, the case, especially for the competition. 

None would be able to attest to this better than those who survived the Benzini Bros. Circus Disaster in 1931, which is described as the most famous circus disaster of all time.  One of those survivors is Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook), now in his 90s and first introduced to us as a nursing home eloper who missed out on the last circus show of the day.  Not eager to return to a home where the residents don't know each other and his family members visit him sparingly, Jacob attempts to pass some time by recalling his firsthand experiences working for "the most extravagant extravaganza" that was once known as the Benzini Bros. Circus.

Ages ago, Jacob was a young student at Cornell (Robert Pattinson), just a step away from getting a degree in veterinary medicine until his parents are killed in a car accident leaving their son penniless and unable to finish up his Ivy league education.  He takes to the train tracks, hoping to follow them to Albany and work, but the rails seem to have a different fate in mind for him.  Late at night he hops a train car that happens to be part of the Benzini Bros. Circus convoy, and the next day he's put to work by Camel (Jim Norton), an elderly employee with a taste for Jamaican ginger extract.  Jacob's history with veterinary medicine quickly gains him a job as the circus' vet – an ideal job for a young man with nowhere to go who loves working with animals. 

But like many ideals, the Benzini Bros. Circus is perfect only on the surface.  A closer look at their lion would reveal a carnivore without any teeth.  Similarly, the man running the show, August (Christoph Waltz), has accumulated so much debt that he'll often "redlight" crew members (toss them off the moving train) to avoid paying salaries.  He'll also do it if somebody upsets him.  His wife and the show's star attraction, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), is not a trained performer, but a former orphan that was adopted when the circus rolled through her town.  Jacob, of course, falls for her, but if it wasn't enough that his life could potentially be on the line should August find out, he's also put in charge of training Rosie, an elephant that could save the entire show with its box office potential. 

Much like the Benzini Bros. Circus, Water for Elephants has plenty to enjoy on the surface with not much else worth remembering beyond the superficial.  A period piece from music video director Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend), Water for Elephants is quite frequently gorgeous to behold thanks to the cinematography of Oscar nominee Rodrigo Prieto.  Upon Jacob's first arrival at the circus, the sequences of spectacle are shot with a warmth and softness that lovingly recall the halcyon days of the 1930s.  After that, Water for Elephants does just enough to be passable, but not enough to be truly memorable.

The potential for a lot of tension and drama goes unfulfilled due to an unnecessarily lengthy running time and mediocre performances from the film's leads, two-thirds of whom are Oscar winners.  Waltz, with his affinity for playing characters that can be equally charming as they are menacing, escapes with the most dignity due to sheer charisma, but Witherspoon brings nothing irreplaceable to the table and Robert Pattinson is not a talented enough actor to do anything but mope over and gaze introspectively at Marlena. 

Surprisingly, the most touching moments of the film come courtesy of Rosie, the elephant and thematic crux of the film.  Rosie is both a conduit into the souls of both Jacob and Marlena as well as the element on which the narrative's entire direction hinges.  The only moments in Water for Elephants in which there is a palpable sense of heart and empathy are the scenes in which we see Jacob caring for the massive, oft-abused beast.  Whoever trained the elephant used in the film should be commended because Rosie exudes more emotion than either Pattinson or Witherspoon, and it's probably not a good sign when a director can coax a better performance out of an animal than he can human beings.

Sara Gruen, the author of the novel upon which the film is based, has said that the backbone of Water for Elephants parallels the biblical story of Jacob.  In that story, Jacob steals his brother's birthright from his blind father, wrestles with God, marries 2 women and has 12 sons that beget the 12 tribes of Israel.  In this story, a mopey vet endears himself to circus folk with his ability to diagnose animal symptoms upon first glance.  Which story sounds more interesting to you?