Film Review: Water for Elephants

All the eye candy of the circus, along with one-dimensional characters and an unfulfilling storyline.

Going to a Depression-era circus must have been a thrill. Before PETA advocated for animals and fancy safety equipment harnessed performers, danger shadowed every act. Water for Elephants takes us to this fantastical place, but never pulls viewers to the edge of their seats. There’s little suspense or sense of investment in the characters, who are all dressed up with no place to transform and blossom.

Perhaps it’s the story. Adapted from a bestselling novel by Sara Gruen, the movie has plenty of period detail but the narrative feels worn, familiar. It opens with a framing tale in the present day. A “crazy” old man (Hal Holbrook) shows up at a circus after hours. He’s taken in by the manager (Paul Schneider), and a photo prompts his memory of working as a vet with the Benzini Brothers Circus in 1931, the year of the greatest circus disaster ever. As he began his voiceover, I could almost hear another “crazy” old lady, Rose, saying, “Take me back to Titanic,” and it made me cringe.

Robert Pattinson plays this man at 22. Jacob Jankowski, the son of Polish immigrants, leaves Cornell veterinary school before taking his final exams after his parents die suddenly in a car crash. With nothing left to his name, he hops on a train that turns out to be a circus, where he secures a job as a vet. His character plays the same the whole way through: honorable, a little naïve, and a protector of animals and pretty women alike. He quickly takes to Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), whose horse act is the circus’ star attraction.

If a movie could win by appearance alone, Witherspoon would save the day. With her platinum-blonde finger wave and sparkled leotards, she registers as a breathtaking, 1930s starlet. August (Christoph Waltz) is the circus owner and her husband, making her off-limits to Jacob. August abuses her and the animals, but his short temper doesn’t amp up the suspense, it just comes at convenient turning points in the narrative. A scene of him crying after an abusive outburst is completely wasted and fails to dimensionalize his character. A circus villain should have some kind of quirk or affectation, but Waltz plays him as a well-mannered, understated gentleman, which doesn’t feel right.

The inert characters are beautifully lit in a sumptuous, saturated palette that illustrates the circus’ spectacle. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto shows equal adeptness with the night scenes in the circus’ train cars, whether the characters are in the dank animal car or in August and Marlena’s luxury suite. This kind of visual glamour, unfortunately, is not matched by the onscreen action.

What ultimately sinks Water for Elephants is a subtle flaw. The plot is propelled by chance and luck rather than the characters’ actual desires and intentions. No matter how fun it is to discover that all your elephant-training problems have been solved because it turns out the elephant responds to Polish, not English, this kind of happenstance doesn’t work when it’s a movie’s sole narrative device. Simple chance is no way to fall in love, either, but that’s exactly how Jacob and Marlena’s romance feels. Water for Elephants entertains the eyes, but wearies the mind. For many, it will be a welcome two-hour diversion, but there’s nothing to bring home after the show.