My affection for Water for Elephants (Fox Studios) is essentially indefensible. The movie, directed by Francis Lawrence ( I Am Legend), is stodgy, old-fashioned, predictable, and sentimental. Based on a best-selling novel by Sara Gruen, it has the fussy, overstuffed feel of a too-faithful adaptation. Yet there’s a strange pleasure in letting this faintly ridiculous film wash over you on an April afternoon. The copper-burnished cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, the charmeuse bias-cut ‘30s dresses, the scratchy gramophones playing Bessie Smith—yes, this is the kind of movie you could imagine seeing with your grandmother at a suburban mall, but does everything have to be edgy and dark and genre-reinventing? Isn’t it OK, once in a while, just to enjoy the spectacle of two beautiful people kissing in a train car in the shadow of an elephant?
Much of the ridicule being dispensed in Water for Elephants’ general direction is a knee-jerk reaction to the casting of Robert Pattinson, the moony-eyed vampire Edward Cullen of the Twilight series. As Jacob Jankowski, the animal-loving son of Polish immigrants during the Depression, Pattinson gets to do something he doesn’t often do as Edward: smile. This isn’t a role that puts Pattinson’s thespian skills to the most rigorous of tests, but at least it lets him out of his gloomy vampire’s lair long enough to enjoy some time in the sun (along with a little PG-13-rated nookie).
Jacob is about to complete his veterinary degree at Cornell when both his parents are killed in a car crash. Alone and penniless, he hops a passing train that turns out to belong to the Benzini Bros. traveling circus. Beginning as a manure-shoveler, Jacob is soon promoted to house vet. But he falls afoul of the circus’ moody owner, August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz), when he refuses to overwork the injured horse that stars in an equestrian act with Rosenbluth’s beautiful young wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).
Getting to know each other over the body of a horse you’ve just had to shoot in the head is pretty much the opposite of a meet-cute. But Marlena and Jacob connect via their shared love of animals and their fear of August, a driven, obsessive man who can be cruel one minute and generous the next. August nearly bankrupts the circus when he invests in an elephant that balks at his brutal training methods. Eventually, Jacob discovers the secret to making the animal perform—I’ll keep that secret a secret, as it leads to one of the movie’s few real surprises—and the Benzini Bros. elephant act, with Marlena as rider, becomes the show’s big moneymaker. All is well until August begins to notice the mutual affection between his wife and his veterinarian …
In a frame story, Jacob as an old man (a wonderful Hal Holbrook) recounts his eventful life to a modern-day circus employee (an underused but memorable Paul Schneider). There’s something ludicrous in the notion that Robert Pattinson would grow up to be Hal Holbrook, but as elsewhere in the movie, you’re willing to grant Water for Elephants its Hollywood conventions. Neither Pattinson nor Witherspoon quite make sense in their roles—he’s too ethereal to be a working-class Polish vet, she’s too elegant to be a seen-it-all carny. But, again, this harks back to Old Hollywood in a not-unpleasant way: Was Gloria Grahame realistically cast as an elephant rider in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)?
Christoph Waltz has come to specialize in playing urbane, seemingly civilized men who harbor an enormous reservoir of cruelty—variations on his unforgettable Nazi officer in Inglourious Basterds—and he invests August Rosenbluth with more moral complexity than the script by Richard LaGravenese would seem to allow. Waltz should be careful of getting typecast as the suave loose cannon, because he’s almost too good at it. His performance is the best one by a human in the film.
In truth, my inexplicably serene goodwill toward this thoroughly silly movie stems mainly from the presence of Rosie, a pink-and-gray-mottled Indian elephant played by a 42-year-old pachyderm named Tai. In the age of CGI animals (and real animals’ movements altered by digital effects), the scenes with the elephant and other big animals have a lovely simplicity and freshness: The creatures are simply there, doing (with some exceptions) what they appear to be doing and sharing the frame with actors. When Jacob reaches fearfully into an angry male lion’s cage to shove in a bucket of meat, we see the real Robert Pattinson being terrified of a real lion. (Pattinson and Waltz apparently referred to their lion scenes as the “no acting required” part of the job.) When Rosie interrupts Jacob and Marlena’s flirtation by waving an inquisitive trunk between them, the moment feels spontaneous and playful, the kind of happy accident that only happens in filming with a real animal. And when Rosie, tortured by August’s bullhook, lies beaten and bleeding, even non-PETA types will share Jacob and Marlena’s horror. The ostensible romantic leads of Water for Elephants may make for a less than smoldering couple, but their chemistry with Rosie is sensational.