AISLE SEAT: Film doesn’t water down the past

Water for Elephants: Four stars out of five.

  • May. 1, 2011 7:00 a.m.

Water For Elephants isn’t just a wonderfully old-fashioned love story, it’s wonderfully old-fashioned.  If you love to be swept up in the sheer emotional grandeur of cinema, a rarity these days, it’d be tough not to fall for this one.

What’s even better, the aforementioned love isn’t relegated solely to romance here – it’s the love of a more innocent era, when the wonder of the big top eclipsed all else.

Who would’ve thought that in the swift, noisy surroundings of 2011 that we’d be viewing something like a travelling circus with such aching fondness?

I’m not sure if children still dream of running off to join such an operation anymore, but Water For Elephants recalls a time when they did. And it’s awesome.

Based on the successfully soapy novel by Sara Gruen, Water For Elephants is a Great Depression-era yarn with a present-day wraparound twist as bookends. We first meet elderly Jacob (Hal Holbrook), looking lost as a circus packs up its caravan of trucks, ready to roll on to the next city.  The circus manager (Paul Schneider) brings the old codger in from the cold to call the nursery home from which he wandered off from. But a picture in the cramped trailer –– a long-ago photo from the Benzini Bros. Circus, a show infamous for some kind of haunting tragedy –– immediately takes Jacob down memory lane.

The year is 1931, and Jacob (played in his younger years with surprisingly effective depth by Twilight’s Robert Pattinson) is one exam away from receiving a degree in veterinary science from Cornell. Suddenly, word arrives that his parents have been killed in a car accident.  Crushed, Jacob walks away from his education, packs a bag and hops on to a passing train –– one occupied by lions, tigers, clowns and acrobats –– and finds a new life for himself.

Once it’s discovered by smooth-yet-ruthless ringmaster August (Christoph Waltz) that his recent stowaway is an animal doctor (or as close to it as one can get), the lad quickly gets promoted from shovelling dung to looking after the show’s exotic pets.

That helps Jacob get closer to Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the beauty who rides the horses and, eventually, the gigantic elephant that becomes Benzini’s star attraction. Jacob quickly develops a crush on Marlena, which is a problem since she’s married to August.  And it’s an especially large problem given that August consistently explodes in bouts of rage so intense, he’s borderline insane. (Y’know, even when Waltz isn’t in a Tarantino movie, he’s acting like he’s in a Tarantino movie.  Good thing, in this flick, the anger serves him very well.)

I’m going to take a wild guess that Gruen’s book had a little more meat to it than this film version. On screen, it’s never fully explained why Jacob is so drawn to the circus, but it’s evident how much he adores the life when we look not into Pattinson’s eyes, but Holbrook’s.

Mind you, blurred motives don’t spoil the overall beauty of Water For Elephants.  Sure, you could nitpick some of the movie’s details.  Case in point, Pattinson and Witherspoon don’t exactly enjoy simmering chemistry, though neither are overly wooden in their performances. But honestly, Water For Elephants pushes enough of the right buttons with me to forgive its shortcomings. They really don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

The feature is currently playing at Galaxy Cinemas in Vernon.

–– Jason Armstrong is The Morning Star’s movie reviewer. His column appears every Friday and Sunday.