by David Schuster and Steve Leventhal
In the midst of a lot of schlock comes the movie “Water For Elephants,” and what a pleasure it was. No overdone special effects, no ridiculous chase scenes, and the only fake back drops are cityscapes of New York circa 1931. Instead, we are treated with a wonderful adaptation of Sara Gruen’s book of the same name. It has a good script, fantastic acting performances, and an old fashioned love story set against the hardships faced by so many during the Great Depression.
At the beginning of the movie an old man wanders to the ticket office for the local circus as the manager is shutting down for the night. Jacob Jankowski (present day – Hal Holbrook) begins to tell his story in a long flashback.
As a veterinary student at Cornell, his life gets turned upside down when tragedy strikes. Robert Pattinson, plays young Jacob, who leaves school suddenly, and jumps on a train, which turns out to be a traveling circus train.
A sympathetic old circus hand gets him work for a day, but the owner August (Christoph Waltz) has no use for him, until Jacob stretches the truth a bit, telling him he’s a vet, and gets put in charge of caring for the animals. Jacob almost right away butts heads with the August, and falls for his wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). An interesting triangle takes place (and I don’t mean Tex Winter’s old “triangle offense”.)
Waltz, who was magnificent in “Inglourius Basterds” is at it again, as the ruthless, owner, who does whatever it takes to keep his circus in business, even if it means serving the animals rotten food, or not paying the help for weeks at a time. August has a terrible temper, which he takes out on the animals, his wife, or anyone who draws his ire. Witherspoon finally gets to show some depth with her acting chops, and isn’t just playing the cute, dumb blonde. Pattinson gets to shed the pale makeup from the “Twilight” movies, and demonsrates what he can do with a good script. The only thing Jacob hates worse than the condition that animals are in, is how August treats Marlena.
If an Academy Award could go to best acting animal then the elephant in this movie would win hands, I mean paws, down. Rosie is the name of the pachyderm, and she does some gymnastic feats that Olga Korbut would have been proud of.
The movie easily flows and keeps your interest and was very reminiscent of the grand love stories of the sixties. Although one is not sure how it will end, it was very satisfying. This movie will certainly be in the mix come next year’s Oscars. We both liked “Water For Elephants” very much, and give it a home run – three and a half stars.