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Water for Elephants (8/10)

by Tony Medley

Run time 122 minutes.

OK for children.

Typecasting can be a burden for an actor. Perhaps the classic was Adam West who played Batman in the iconic 1966 TV series. He did a wonderful job of acting, but was forever typecast as Batman and his career stymied.

Robert Pattison plays Jacob, the male protagonist in this. He played the vampire Edward Cullen in the dreadful Twilight series that was made for 13 year old females. He played that role so well that every time he came onscreen I saw a vampire. Too bad, too, because this film, from Sara Gruen’s 2006 novel, is a The Notebook style tear-jerker.

But let’s be clear, what makes this Notebook-worthy is the Oscar®-nomination worthy performance of Hal Holbrook, who plays Jacob as an old man. The story is told in a flashback, starting with old Jacob trespassing on a modern day circus. He’s brought into the office and before being sent back to his nursing home he tells his story. Holbrook is to this film as the song “High Noon” was to the 1952 movie of the same name. Without the song, High Noon was a dud. Without Holbrook, this film would be but a shadow of what it is. He’s the guy who creates all the tears.

Reese Witherspoon plays Marlena, the horseback-riding wife of August (Christoph Waltz), who owns the Benzini Bros. Circus. Screenwriter Richard LaGravanese combined two main characters from the book, animal trainer August and abusive owner, Uncle Al, into August and made him the owner. Marlena is his star performer.

Jacob is left destitute as his veterinarian father and mother die suddenly as he’s taking a veterinarian exam at Cornell. He jumps on a freight train that happens to be transporting Augusts’ circus, is adopted by an old crewman, Camel (Jim Norton in a fine performance), and becomes a member of the crew. He meets Marlena, is taken under the wing of August, and sparks are set to fly.

Not surprisingly, given the roles offered to Waltz, August is a sociopath who has a special crew of bullies that occasionally throws unneeded crew members off of speeding trains.

Things change when August buys Rosie, a 50ish elephant thought to be extremely dumb. Played by veteran movie performer, Tai, the elephant gives an Oscar®-quality performance. While August physically abuses Rosie, terrific movie-making magic made it appear that Rosie is actually being struck, but nothing ever touched her at any time during filming. All scenes involving animals were monitored by Animal Humane Association.

But I have to mention here that I think that animals, especially elephants, are horribly mistreated by being caged and displayed as they are in circuses and zoos. These magnificent animals are meant to roam in the wild, not to be imprisoned in cages or made to perform like slaves. Ecologist Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell has conducted groundbreaking research in Etosha National Park in Namibia that pretty conclusively proves that elephants communicate with one another through low-pitched sounds barely audible to humans. She also posits that low-frequency calls generate powerful vibrations in the ground - seismic signals that elephants feel and interpret through their sensitive trunks and feet. These are intelligent animals and it revolts me to see them caged. As a result, I watched this film which features a captured, enslaved elephant forcibly removed from its natural habitat, with mixed feelings.

Waltz gives another sparkling performance, but he continues to play the same smiling villain he played to win an Oscar® in Inglorious Basterds (2008) and this year’s The Green Hornet. He does this extremely well, but he needs a change of pace.

Witherspoon shines as the woman after whom both men lust. She did all her own stunts on the elephant but was doubled on the horse.

Pattison’s strange, brooding looks and narrow range bothered me throughout the film. Witherspoon helps him as much as she can in their scenes together, as does Waltz, but it’s clear that there is a disparity of talent. The kissing scene between Witherspoon and Pattison was unconvincing.

In addition to Holbrook, Witherspoon, Waltz, and Norton, there are a myriad of other fine supporting performances along with terrific production design (Jack Fisk) of the circus and the insides of the train, and cinematography (Rodrigo Prieto). Prieto has at least one tracking shot inside the train that is truly memorable.

This is a captivating film, the best circus movie I’ve seen.