Theatrical Review: WATER FOR ELEPHANTS
When I was three years old, my mother took me to the circus. She wanted this experience for my brother and me to be so extravagant and memorable that she bought the highest priced tickets, which included all the stops - a program guide for us both (no sharing necessary), a plastic reusable cup featuring an elephant’s head as the lid, and ring-side seats fit for the most unique of “Gen Me” snowflakes. She planned everything out, and to this day I’m still grateful. But the one thing she didn’t plan for was my unexpected emotional response from seeing clowns, animals, and people on stilts. She likes to tell people now that the tantrum I threw the first moment a clown tried to touch me rivaled any possessed movie child, however I have pretty much locked the entire show in the deep recesses of my brain. That is to say at the impressionable age of three, I learned I fucking hate circuses.
While my circus-induced mental breakdown taught me I probably should never have a carnival-themed wedding or even take my future children to Ringling Brothers, reflecting on the moment always intrigued me enough to read up on the history of early 20th century circuses. When Sara Gruen’s 2006 novel Water for Elephants came out to massive critical acclaim, I steadied my sensitive stomach and dived deep into a world of shocking animal cruelty and how much power loving “God’s simplest creatures” can have on an individual. Jacob is a young veterinarian student who flees school days before graduating following the untimely death of his parents, and conveniently finds himself stowed away on the Benzini Brothers traveling circus train. He quickly gains the trust of worker Camel and lands a job as the circus’s vet, only to fall in love with the enchanting star attraction Marlena - much to the ire of her husband and circus owner August. The book was incredibly moving, shocking, and romantic, but the treatment of the animal characters always captivated me more than any of the human relationships. Once the film rights were announced, it was almost too discomforting to realize people would now see these tortured animals, not just read about them. I’m getting a little queasy just thinking about it.
Fast forward to this week’s release of the film adaptation of WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, a film I both dreaded watching but also hoped would capture the fullness of Gruen’s stellar novel. Not many films have the distinction of embodying the soul of a great book while still bringing something new to life in the final project. WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is one of those lucky films. Director Francis Lawrence, well-known for his music video work, was a wise choice, for he has never shied away from creating beautiful images and pushing a story forward with his actors. Richard LaGravenese’s script is strong, however it’s Lawrence’s masterful eye that truly brings the whimsical novel to life.
At times the film can seem almost too contrived and cheesy, but each actor commits so fully to his or her role in this heart-wrenching melodrama it’s impossible not to get caught up in the storm of feelings. I will warn - the animal sub-story does compel more than the slightly lacking chemistry between Robert Pattinson’s Jacob and Reese Witherspoon’s Marlena. Pattinson is always an impressive actor, even though it’s impossible to not see him as Edward Cullen, but in WATER FOR ELEPHANTS he does succeed in escaping into the role of a naïve, yet full-hearted, student. Witherspoon is graceful and eye-catching, but she often hides behind her own good looks and struggles to connect with her human co-star. She never goes over-the-top enough to fully embrace the melodrama necessary for this role. On the other hand, Christoph Waltz is perfectly cast as the psychopathic August. As the film’s layers peel back, we almost feel sympathetic for a man with so much hate in his heart. Obviously, Waltz excels at quietly tense manic performances. But here he chooses to pull back in just the right places, never breaking the illusion that he could wreak both animals and humans with his fists.
WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, just like the novel, is not for the faint of heart. It is a striking work, masked in a simple story of star-crossed love and beautiful costumes. I recommend bringing a few tissues and a flask of bathtub gin, while reminding yourself no animals were hurt during the film’s production. But it may make you think twice about going to another circus ever again.