Water for Elephants


            “Water for Elephants” is one of those movies that a lot of genteel---dare I say “aging”?---- churchgoing folk have been looking for:  it not only immerses the viewer in an America now consigned only to memory, it hearkens to an earlier era of filmmaking, as well:  when four-letter words didn’t abound in every dialogue, and when the courtship of men and women did not proceed immediately to the bedroom, but took a while for the slow burn to ignite into sparks, and in the meantime we viewers can enjoy watching the development of the ever-more-obvious smoldering.

            Robert Pattinson, of “Twilight” fame, plays Jacob, the Depression-Era Cornell grad student who was just about to take his final exam in veterinary school when the Dean interrupts the testing with the terrible news:  his parents have been killed in an automobile accident.  But it gets worse.  His Mom and Dad, Polish immigrants who still spoke the mother tongue with him inside the house, had apparently mortgaged themselves over their heads, without telling him, to finance his education.  And so our grief-stricken young man suddenly finds himself homeless as well as orphaned.  He’s too distraught to go back now and finish his final.  And so he just wanders down the train tracks, and hops the first train he comes across, which just happens to be….a traveling circus.

            At first, he gets rough treatment from the tough, seedy, roustabouts, but when the owner, August (the always-menacing Christoph Waltz) hears of Jacob’s skill with animals, he’s hired.  Never mind the not-quite qualifications, we’re all illusionists here.  Now, at least, Jacob has a job, and something useful to do that uses his expensive education, but more importantly, he has an instant social network.  But there are a couple of problems.  One is that August is a bullying, mean-spirited tyrant.  The other is that August’s wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), is a gentle brooding beauty who quickly catches the eye of our handsome leading man.

            All this is told from the retrospective of the still-spry Hal Holbrook, who is always a treat to watch, in the guise of spinning a yarn about the traveling circus “back in the day” to a young manager of a modern circus, who at first assumes the old man to be in serious dementia, but then realizes, no, he’s just an old circus hand who wants to sniff that sawdust floor again.  (“The Roar of the Greasepaint, and the Smell of the Crowd,” and all that.)  And maybe if he happens to keel over while loudly barking the fat lady act, he will have died happier than in a sterile institutional setting surrounded by strangers paid to corral and subdue  him into dispirited quiescence.

            The Depression-Era traveling circus comes to life in this film, and it really feels like those performers who traveled together became a substitute family, complete with raging dysfunction.  Jacob brings not only a skill he knew he had----treating animals----but also a skill he didn’t realize was important—speaking Polish to them!

            Yes, of course, we have a classic love triangle here.  Pattinson should be accustomed to this kind of role, after the “Twilight” series, but there were a couple of times here he could have made good use of those vampire superpowers.  Alas, in this film, he’s very mortal in a bare-knuckles brawl.  But that’s part of the charm of his boyish character.

            “Water for Elephants” will appeal to many gentlefolk who are nostalgic for an earlier, simpler, age, and an “old-school” style of discreet filmmaking.


Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Co-Pastor, United Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas