“Water For Elephants” tells the story of Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson), a young Polish boy growing up in Great Depression-era America who lived under the care of a highly supportive family and had a great future mapped out. It is his last day at Cornell University, where he has been keenly studying to become a veterinarian. But during his final exams, he receives the tragic news that both of his parents were killed in a car accident. With no other close relatives to stay with, he leaves his old town behind and thus never officially graduates from school.
Aimlessly wandering in search of his life’s calling, Jacob hitches a ride on a train that turns out to be home to a traveling circus company called Benzini Brothers. While not initially met with good vibrations from the circus performers and staff, the iron-fisted head animal trainer August (Christoph Waltz) takes initiative and offers him a job because of his extensive knowledge of animal health.
Jacob begins his career scooping various animal droppings from the pens, but eventually makes his way into the circus big-leagues when he observes what could become a huge liability to the Benzini name. Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the beautiful star performer, is working with a white horse whose hoof is falling to critical disease and the only competent way to go about this issue is putting it out of its misery to prevent further affliction. Jacob’s audacious decision to follow through is almost what gets him thrown out (literally) of the circus crew, but ends up benefiting the company in the long run. This leads to buying a bull elephant for Marlena’s show and the act draws bigger audience revenue than before. Needless to say, Jacob slowly but surely makes a name for himself among the Benzini Brothers family.
He also begins to develop feelings for Marlena, who is unfortunately already married to August. This marriage has by this point played itself out far longer than it should. August reveals himself to be a more twisted and tyrannical human being day by day, as well as a very overbearing husband. He exhibits cruelty to the animals, to his employees and to anything and everything that gets in the way of putting on a spectacle of a show.
The film is a series of incidents told from the perspective of the now ninetysomething-year-old Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook), who looks back on the year 1931 as the one of the best year of his life. He wants to get back into the lifestyle he had when working all those years ago and stands gazing at a local circus in fascination even after it closes for the night.
The lead performances are natural and compelling for what they are worth. Pattinson has a leading man look about him and displays an infinite amount more acting capability and pizzazz than he ever could as the stoic Edward character in “Twilight.” And Waltz continues to sell himself in playing very threatening yet somehow compelling roles, like his Oscar-winning portrayal of Hans Landa in “Inglourious Basterds.”
Unfortunately, this big-screen adaptation of Sara Gruen’s novel suffers from a dearth in an emotional balance with these characters. Sure, we can physically see that Jacob and Marlena want to be together, but I could never sense the romantic spark between the two like I could with Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in “The Adjustment Bureau.” You can sense a greater connection lying somewhere in this material, but it never translates as fully and successfully onto film.
“Water For Elephants” is a modest kind of romantic drama that does not need the assistance of glossy special effects to hold the audience’s interest. What you see onscreen has a nice, picturesque appeal that we rarely see in this age where an extravagant budget is the norm. Then again, I feel that it lacks that extra driving push that could make it something truly spectacular. The chemistry isn’t quite there between Pattinson and Witherspoon. While not as fully rewarding as I think it could have been, there are still some austere pleasures to be had along the way.