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
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.
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.
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
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