Water for Elephants (Twentieth Century Fox, PG-13)

A much larger group of potential ticket-buyers could have been tapped with a different title that I offer here for consideration: Twilight Under the Big Top.

 

 

Water for Elephants, the latest feature film from Francis Lawrence, is adapted from a best-selling novel of the same name by Sara Gruen. It’s understandable that the film would bear the same title as the book because Ms. Gruen’s fans form a built-in market. However, a much larger group of potential ticket-buyers could have been tapped with a different title that I offer here for consideration: Twilight Under the Big Top.

There are no vampires in Water for Elephants, but Robert Pattinson plays the central character in a manner every bit as animated as he does his better-known role of Edward Cullen in the Twilight Series. And as most of the story takes place within a travelling circus it wouldn’t do the box office any harm to highlight that fact in the title. It might not do the film’s awards potential any harm either, as anyone old enough to have been paying attention in 1952 can affirm. Hint: that was the year Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth won the Best Picture Oscar over, among other contenders, High Noon, The Quiet Man and Singin’ in the Rain.

Water for Elephants is trying hard to be this summer’s blockbuster hit and it just might succeed at that goal. It won’t appeal to the discerning filmgoer who is bothered by things like flagrant illogicalities and amazing coincidences in the plot, exposition poorly disguised as dialogue, and editing which at times appears to have been done with a hatchet in order to preserve the film’s PG-13 rating. However such individuals are a small minority among potential ticket-buyers and Water for Elephants has been engineered to appeal to several larger markets, among them Twilight fans and folks nostalgic for the good old days when the circus travelled by train and it was a big event when it came to town.

The main action begins in 1931 as the earnest Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson), in the midst of taking his final exam for veterinary school, is summoned to the morgue to identify his parents’ bodies. They’ve just been killed in an automobile accident and his grief is compounded by learning that they mortgaged the family home to pay his tuition, the latter news delivered by a banker right out of a hiss-the-villain melodrama. Heartbroken, Jacob jumps a passing train, narrowly avoids being thrown back off again, and is able to talk his way into a job. Because, you see, it’s the circus train, they have animals in need of care, he’s almost a vet, and wasn’t that just an amazing stroke of luck? If you’re going to ask why the school didn’t delay giving Jacob the news about his parents’ deaths until he had finished his final exam, or why he didn’t go back the next day to complete it (honoring their memories as well as the sacrifices they made for him), this is probably not the movie for you.

Jacob finds himself working for the Benzini Brothers Circus, run by the schizophrenic August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz) and starring August’s wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) as an equestrian performer. The script follows the basic coming-of-age formula as Jacob’s innocence is shattered and his idealism tested in a world in which both animals and people are used up and discarded, sometimes at night from a moving train. On the other hand, it is the Great Depression, and if the circus doesn’t sell enough tickets to keep going everyone will be out in the cold anyway. August states this latter fact repeatedly and Marlene’s stories of her childhood underline for Jacob the fact that not everyone grows up with loving parents or can count on having their education paid for.

Water for Elephants does a great job recreating the early 1930s including a wonderful set piece of the circus setting up in a new town, which looks as amazing as it might through the eyes of a Depression-era child. The other reason to see this film is the performance of Christoph Waltz, who leaves the rest of the cast in his wake with his charming/scary portrayal of August as a man who can and does switch moods on a dime. Pattinson comes off pretty much as a blank slate who seems to be narrating someone else’s story even when he’s supposed to be acting in his own but that approach works reasonably well in this film. Reese Witherspoon is a fine actress and more than adequate for the peek-a-boo costumes her character wears while performing but doesn’t seem entirely comfortable in the role of Marlena. Hal Holbrook appears as the elderly Jacob in a framing story and he does fairly well with this small role even while saddled with the task of with delivering huge packets of exposition as if they were normal conversation.

It’s hardly a work of art, but as a popcorn movie Water for Elephants is not bad if you’re willing to check your critical faculties at the door. That goes double if you’re an R-Pat fan, of course. Little life lessons are salted throughout as are jokes designed to appeal to young teenagers while the sex and violence is mostly kept off screen so parents will find little to object to. Even the use of cinematic devices is so obvious that it feels as if Lawrence were designing his film to appeal to young people just starting to notice such things (case in point: the initial reveal of August). So there’s an audience out there which will enjoy Water for Elephants and it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out whether you’re one of them or not. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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