At the Movies: Water for Elephants

Wow. This is a really bad month for movies.

I have struggled to find a reason to leave the house and go to the cinema for weeks — and not just because of high gas prices. The most popular movies of April have been a couple of cartoons — one about birds and one about the Easter Bunny. Sad.

And then there’s this week, where your choices are a Depression-era romance set on a circus train, a Disney nature film and the 347th Tyler Perry “Madea” movie. Next week’s not any better — yet another “Fast & Furious” flick and a Disney movie about the prom. Oh yeah, I’m going to sit through a Disney movie about the prom. It’s almost enough to make a guy start watching professional sports.

May — so near and yet so far away.

Water for Elephants

I went to this thinking it was another Disney nature documentary but turns out it’s an old-fashioned love story. It’s not bad if you like that kind of thing.

Based on the novel by Sara Gruen, the movie opens with that classic framing device of an old man (Hal Holbrook) looking back and telling the story of his life.

As a young man in the 1930s, Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is on the verge of graduating from college with a veterinary degree when his parents are killed in a car crash. It turns out the family had mortgaged everything on Jacob’s tuition, so now he’s homeless and broke.

Jacob packs a bag and starts walking. He jumps onto a passing train which happens to be carrying a traveling circus. He’s taken under the wing of an old man strangely named Camel (Jim Norton) and soon Jacob is shoveling manure and doing other mundane circus work. But soon his background in veterinary medicine helps him to move up the corporate ladder to become the caretaker for the circus menagerie.

The circus is owned by August (Christoph Waltz), a sometimes charming but often harsh taskmaster. Times are hard, including for circuses, and August is not above tossing workers off a moving train if he can’t pay them. He doesn’t treat the animals any better.

The star of the show is the lovely Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who also happens to be August’s wife. In an attempt to drawn in a bigger audience, August purchases a new attraction — an elephant. Marlena is tasked with turning the pachyderm into her new sidekick while Jacob keeps her healthy and compliant.

You know where this is going, right? You don’t need to have read the book to figure out where this is headed, right? There’s a love triangle in the making, and one of the players is not the elephant.

“Water for Elephants” is a pleasant, old-fashioned movie with nice cinematography and an authentic 1930s look and feel. For the first time I feel Robert Pattinson may have a future beyond the “Twilight” movies. However, while I felt he and Witherspoon did nice work, I didn’t feel like they had much chemistry as a couple.

As he did in “Inglourious Basterds,” Christoph Waltz steals the show with another entertaining performance. August may be the villain of the piece, but he’s not without his charms.

Did it work for me? While at times it was a bit too cornball and sentimental, overall I enjoyed it. Not the greatest show on earth but decent enough.


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