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Water for Elephants

A 2011 movie directed by Francis Lawrence.

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As Old-Fashioned as a Three-Ring Circus

  • Apr 23, 2011
Star Rating:

Water for Elephants, based on the novel by Sara Gruen, is a gloriously old-fashioned movie – a lurid romantic melodrama that plays on the emotions like a finely-tuned violin. With its visual splendor, its touches of Depression-era grittiness, and its love-struck main characters, the film has a charmingly nostalgic feel about it. It even supplies us with one of the best narrative conventions there is, namely a life story told in flashback by a lonely but wise old man. This would be Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook), who has wandered onto the grounds of a closing circus and carnival. He’s taken in by a young employee. At first, he flips through the pages of a phonebook, trying to find the number for Jacob’s nursing home. Then he learns that Jacob was once part of a circus; that interests him enough to set down the phone, open a bottle of booze, and listen to what he has to say.
And so, we go back to the early 1930s, where a college-age Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is studying veterinary medicine at Cornell. When his beloved but financially irresponsible parents tragically die in a car accident, he quits school just shy of earning his degree and runs away from home. With just a suitcase and the clothes on his back, he solemnly follows a wooded railroad line in the moonlight before hitching a ride on a passing train. As it so happens, this train is the home of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a second-rate travelling circus run by August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz), whose instant charisma is second only to his quick temper. He’s prepared to have Jacob thrown off the train, but then he realizes it would be a good idea to have an animal doctor around.

Jacob soon meets the performers and flunkies – a reliable grab bag of colorful characters, including the little person with the dog act and the fat lady. He also meets August’s wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the Benzini Brothers’ equestrian performer. She too has a sob story, which is made even sadder by her belief that only the circus, and her marriage to August, is allowing her to be somebody. She and Jacob slowly but surely begin to fall in love. At the same time, they’re both introduced to Rosie the Elephant; despite being deeply in debt, August purchased her in a desperate attempt to create a new star attraction and drum up business. Neither Jacob nor Marlena have any experience with elephants, but they quickly bond with Rosie, who’s incredibly intelligent. She knows the extent of August’s cruelty. He regularly prods her with a bull hook – and in one particularly ugly incident, he beats her with it.
The original choice for August was Sean Penn. Although he is one of our finest living actors (his list of achievement is too long for this review), I think director Francis Lawrence made the right choice by going with Waltz. As August, he draws on many of the strengths that made Colonel Hans Landa of Inglourious Basterds so memorable; he’s a possessive, suspicious, and sadistic monster, but his devilish charm is irresistible. I’m torn between waiting on the edge of my seat for Waltz’s next villainous role and not wanting him to be typecast. If he’s this good at playing the bad guy, imagine what he can do as the hero.

Witherspoon and Pattinson have believable onscreen chemistry, which is crucial when the primary function of your characters is to overcome adversity and fall in love. I’m not exactly being critical; if we can’t praise Jacob and Marlena for their refreshing originality, we should at least acknowledge them as loving throwbacks. They also share some wonderful scenes with Rosie, who may be big and slow but can still express a great deal of emotion with just a single glance at the camera. Animals have been surprisingly good at generating emotional reactions from audiences. They don’t have to shed tears in order to convey physical or psychological pain, nor do they have to laugh to let us know that they’re happy. It’s just something you know. I can’t really explain it.
The look of the film is impressive. Rather than drown the film in a sea of visual effects – which I’m sure would have looked great – Lawrence relied on production designer Jack Fisk to create the world of this movie. In their yesteryear roughness, the sets are tangible and appealing. This is most evident during scenes on the train, which, despite the limitations of space, shows a lot of expression. Credit also to Jacqueline West for her vivid costume designs, Rodrigo Prieto for his nostalgic lighting effects, and David Crank for his heightened yet practical art direction. The greatest achievement of Water for Elephants is its wonderful theatricality; the goal is not to make you think, but merely to tell you a story. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the most beautiful kind of movie there is.


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April 26, 2011
excellent review - really thorough. And yes we loved it too. It was a beautiful, old fashion film. Worthy of our high bagel award.
April 26, 2011
Thanks for the comment. Sometimes, it's nice to see a movie that, romantically, is pure fantasy. The last film that stirred the same nostalgic feelings within me was Titanic.
April 26, 2011
Looks spectacular. I'm looking forward to seeing this one!
April 26, 2011
It really is a nice movie. It's a shame it's not getting better recognition by audiences or critics.
April 23, 2011
This is one of those films that I know will be good, but I have second thoughts of going to the theaters for. Not sure why, I guess it is because I need to be in the right mood for it. I managed to see a new Chinese film this weekend (it was playing nearby) and now I kinda wish I went to see this instead. We'll see how my day goes, I am thinking of going indie later on....
April 23, 2011
Yes, it is unashamedly romantic and very old-time Hollywood. But for what it is, I thought it was very well done.
More Water for Elephants (movie) reviews
review by . February 05, 2012
posted in Movie Hype
**1/2 out of ****    In those few circus movies both new and old, one thing appears to remain constant; the presence of a train. In my experience, it's the great circus movies that leave out this aspect; while the good, the bad, and the mediocre sub-genre entries treat the inclusion of the railway as a sort of necessity. In the case of "Water for Elephants", the new film from director Richard LaGravenese, there is a train; and it acts not only as a method of transportation for …
review by . April 26, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
Under most circumstances I love period pieces.  All of the research and work that goes into a production from start to finish that makes the film feel authentic.  Wardrobe, hair styles, make-up, props, vehicles/transportation, speech, etc.  All of the little things that can ultimately make or break a period piece if it is supposed to feel realistic.  Right off the bat we are told that "THIS FILM TAKES PLACE IN 1931", like we are being beat over the head with that fact, …
review by . June 06, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
Water for Elephants Is An Excellent Date Night Movie
Water for Elephants is an award winning film in my book. This movie is rated PG-13 and is based in the 1930's. This is a romantic drama and will last about 2 hours. This is directed by Francis Lawerence and written by Richard LaGravenese and Sara Gruen. The main stars of this film is Robert Pattinson and Teese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz. You probably are wondering why Robert Pattinson looks familiar and that is because he has in movies such as: Twilight as Edward Cullen and in the Harry …
review by . April 22, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
'Water For Elephants' 'Two Jews On Film' Fly High Under The Big Top With This Romantic Drama (Video)
   'Water For Elephants' directed by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) and written by Richard LaGravenese (The Bridges Of Madison County) is based on the novel of the same name.  The book was written by Sara Gruen and was on the New York Times best seller list for over 12 weeks in 2006.      The film takes place during the Great Depression...1930's...a time when people needed desperately to escape their world of poverty...People needed a place where they …
About the reviewer
Chris Pandolfi ()
Ranked #5
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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About this movie


A veterinary student abandons his studies after his parents are killed and joins a traveling circus as their vet.
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Director: Francis Lawrence
Genre: Drama
Release Date: 22 April 2011 (USA)
Runtime: 120 minutes
Studio: Fox 2000 Pictures, 3 Arts Entertainment, Flashpoint Entertainment
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