Movie review: Water for Elephants

Mary's verdict: Don’t go see “Water for Elephants” unless you really enjoy the actors in the film, or love animals.

In this movie, 90 year-old Jacob Jankowski looks back on his youth when he worked as a vet for the Benzini Brothers Circus and fell in love with the circus owner’s wife, Marlena.

Set in a world torn by the Great Depression, and riots because of the prohibition of alcohol, this movie beautifully captures life in the rapid, whirlwind of a traveling circus, from its lowest laborers to the avarice of owner August – played by Christopher Waltz (Inglorious Basterds, The Green Hornet).

August’s desire, despite falling ticket sales, to make a profit and create a circus empire no matter how dirty his hands get or how much he must hurt the animals and people around him, forms the central conflict of the story.

Jacob Jankowski – played by Robert Pattinson (Twilight) – is a veterinary student at Cornell when tragedy strikes, forcing him to leave his old life behind. Thinking there is nothing left for him, he becomes a drifter and hops the circus’s train.

His life becomes a balancing act as young Jacob cares for mistreated animals, and wonders how forever elegant Marlena – played by Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line) – can be married to a man who treats her as a mere object or act in the circus, no better than the animals, which she loves and he abuses.

Marlena and Jacob are drawn to each other, first in friendship founded on compassion for the circus animals. Love grows between them as August conducts the shows, abusing the animals, especially the new elephant, Rosie.

It is Rosie’s pain that ultimately allows everyone to escape. This story shows how seeing animals suffer can bring out love – the desire to protect the ones we cherish. As the performer and the veterinarian’s love strengthens, their choice about what to protect will affect everyone and everything in the circus.

The film’s director, Francis Lawrence, took a risk when casting his actors. No matter how hard we try, the minute Robert Pattinson turns up on the screen we can’t help but see him as Edward Cullen, the teen heartthrob vampire from the “Twilight” series of movies. And as irony would have it, in this film his name is Jacob, that of his werewolf nemsis in the “Twilight” films. Don’t shun this movie right away just because Pattinson is in it. Take another look at it. Pattinson gives a believable performance of a man compelled to do what he thinks is right.

Another interesting choice is casting Reese Witherspoon as Pattinson’s love interest, a women 10 years his senior. But Reese Witherspoon is lovely and young looking, no matter who she’s starring with. The 1930s outfits – the elegant gowns, circus costumes, bobbed hair, and bright red lipstick – fit her to a T. Reese gives a great performance – her character caught in agony between her demanding husband and the possibilities of a wider world that her new love with Jacob offers.

Someone has to play the antagonist in the story and why not Christopher Waltz? Out of all the major actors’ performances, I thought Christopher’s was the most dramatic and the most believable. It is not easy playing a circus owner who is possessed by greed to do sinister acts and coolly be able to justify those very actions.

Don’t go see “Water for Elephants” unless you really enjoy the actors in the film. I honestly thought they could go deeper into the story with more emotion. And the emotional moments the movie did have were a little overplayed. In a way, the characters seem too concerned about the animals’ safety.

Teens will probably enjoy the young actors and the large display of animals. If you are not an animal lover, I would say that you wouldn’t see this movie as creative film, and thus not enjoy it as much.