As August, the main antagonist in "Water for Elephants," says, everything about the circus is an illusion. How much the fat lady really weighs, how tame the wild cats really are and how sane the ring master really is. The decay and abuse hiding behind circus grandeur is one of the underlying themes in the film.
The movie is set in 1930's America, a time of struggle, desperation and prohibition. To escape their worries, people often went to see the traveling circuses that rolled into town. The circus is the heart of "Water for Elephants."
Robert Pattinson stars as Jacob Jankowski, a veterinarian student who drops out of school when his parents are killed in a car accident. Seeing no future for himself, he jumps a passing train that turns out to hold the cast and crew of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Drawn in by the wonder and glamour of the circus, he stays as a laborer until he is hired as the show's vet. It probably doesn't hurt that one of the performers who works with the animals is the beautiful and talented Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). Witherspoon is convincing as the alluring wife of the unstable ringmaster. Christoph Waltz plays the powerful boss and adoring (or possibly obsessive) husband of Marlena.
Based on a novel by Sara Gruen, the movie is a solid tribute to her work. There's no unnecessary additional romance or offending alterations. There are a few changes, such as the subtraction of Uncle Al's character, who was the original ringmaster, and a slightly more dramatic climax. But these changes are good and add to the enjoyment of the movie.
Visually speaking, this movie is fantastic. Trapeze artists, clowns, tightrope walkers, lion tamers, this movie has it all. The movie is also bursting with exotic animals, specifically Rosie the elephant. Rosie is played by Tai, who steals scenes as she throws down buckets of whiskey and lemonade. Director Francis Lawrence and the crew also do a respectable job of creating the atmosphere of the 1930s. The costumes and the speakeasies are all very believable.
Plotwise, the movie is good. I didn't feel the suspense and desperation of the book, but perhaps that's because I already knew the ending. The movie flows pretty well, though it does get a little stuck in the middle. You soon realize that behind the scenes the circus is not a happy place. The contradiction between the put-together shows and the soul of the circus is disturbing. "Water for Elephants" does a nice job of capturing this without being too frightening. It would have been nice to see a little more of the side characters, but the love triangle takes over onscreen. It's not a bad thing, but the humor found in the book is somewhat lacking in the film.
Speaking of the film's love triangle, Waltz, Witherspoon and Pattinson all do a good job in the movie. Waltz is perfect, capturing the complexity of August without being too obvious. Just like the character, you find yourself teetering between feelings of admiration, fear and then loathing. I was afraid Witherspoon would be too old to play Marlena, but she captured her look and air well. I was the most surprised at Pattinson's performance. At times he could be a little blank or empty, but the character of Jacob is never very complicated. He fits in with two more experienced actors and the chemistry between him and Witherspoon isn't weak. In past films, "Remember Me" and, of course, the "Twilight" saga, Pattinson comes off as morose and maybe even a little creepy. In "Water for Elephants," he is an awkward and hopeful young man, which is exactly what he is supposed to be.
I would recommend this movie to anyone who wants to be completely entertained for two hours. If you're not completely impressed with the actors or some other element of the movie, you might still enjoy it. "Water for Elephants" provides an escape from the humdrum of everyday life. The circus thrills you with exotic animals and exciting performances. The movie creates an almost magical atmosphere that you can't help but be mesmerized.
Emily Coleman is a sophomore at Frontier High School.
"Water for Elephants"
3 stars (out of 4)