Monday, May 9, 2011

Water and Whiskey for Elephants

Water for Elephants” is an enjoyable movie, beautifully filmed.  My favorite characters are the elephant Rosie, the horses, the big cats, and the snappy little Jack Russell named Queenie.  These animals are incredibly well trained, and I know from prior reading that Rosie (an excellent performance from Tai) is cherished by her trainer, Kari Johnson.  For more on Tai, read Ann Downer’s interview with Kari Johnson at

Hal Holbrook tells the tale of his youth in the darkness of the Depression.  Young Jacob Jankowski is sitting for his final exam in veterinary science at Cornell (the source of his later nickname at the circus) when the word comes that his Polish-born parents have been killed.  Soon he learns that their house and all he thought belonged to his parents in fact belong to the bank.  As did so many others during the Depression, Jacob hits the road with the clothes on his back and a few belongings, which he loses when he jumps a train.  There he falls in with roustabouts for a circus.  This isn’t a jovial encounter – he is threatened with being thrown off the train, which is apparently a daily (or perhaps nightly) occurrence.  Daily survival takes a lot of effort on this Depression-era circus train.

The circus is a magical place, first as it grows in one day by the intensive labor of the roustabouts, and then blossoming fully when the acts appear to an awe-struck audience.  The scenes of eager locals (a.k.a. “rubes”) straining forward to watch the colorful acts that have invaded their dusty town are gorgeous, demanding excitement from the film’s audience.  “Water for Elephants” is beautifully shot, bringing us back to the Depression, the elegance amid the dire poverty, the sparkling bright colors breaking through the grime and dust of the road.  The story shows, day by day, the desperation, the fear, and yet the hope for better times. Nevertheless, the film has a few issues.

One performance that is certainly not an issue:  Christophe Waltz plays a sociopath quite brilliantly.  His August, owner of the travelling circus, is cold, possessive, angry, and vicious. Robert Pattinson is quite good as the ardent young vet who falls in love with the boss’ wife.  Reese Witherspoon as Marlena, the star act, the boss’ wife, is very interesting on her own with all sorts of things going through her mind that flit across her porcelain face.  However, both Pattinson and Witherspoon have better chemistry with Rosie the elephant than with each other. 

The acquisition and training of Rosie the elephant, as well as the growing relationship between Jacob and Marlena felt rather compressed.  That Marlena held back her feelings played true, as it would have been suicidal behavior for her to let anything show in front of her husband.  In fact, August and Marlena seem to get along quite well except when August goes a little crazy every other day.  Shots of Pattinson on his own made him a very likable character, falling like a naïve fool for the girl, taking his licks of initiation into the family of roustabouts. It was when the two young stars were onscreen together that it became clear that the spark is missing.  When they ran away together, I worried that about the elephant.  I kept thinking, “You left Rosie there at the mercy of the sociopath?” 

That parts felt a bit compressed to me I presume is a product of the transition from novel to film (which I have yet to read).  Except for that compression, the script by Richard LaGravenese based on Sara Gruen’s novel is very good, with many clear and colorful characters, like
  • Camel, a roustabout who takes Jacob under his wing, played winningly by Jim Norton.   
  • The hateful Blackie (Scott MacDonald) who beats up and kills whoever August tells him to, while
  • Earl (Ken Foree) protects August from all comers, including himself. 
  • Mark Povinelli plays Walter, an irascible animal wrangler with a Jack Russell who loves him and no one else.
  • James Frain makes a brief but notable appearance as Rosie’s last caretaker.
Characters and relationships among the small circle of roustabouts we come to know well grow naturally and realistically. 

Director Francis Lawrence puts the package together smartly.  It’s sometimes sweeping, sometimes intimate, a good old-fashioned story well told.  What must be noted is the exquisite production design by Jack Fisk.  The world he creates is magical, dreadful, terrifying and hopeful.  He doesn’t put all of his energy in the circus alone -- the circus train is a town, an entire civilization, and it’s remarkable.

Take note – there are ugly scenes in this film, as there must be to tell the story effectively.  There is abuse of animals and humans, some of it visual, some aural, all unpleasant but purposeful.  None of the ugliness is extraneous to the story.  All in all, I enjoyed the film with some tiny reservations.  Now it’s time to read the book by Sara Gruen.

~ Molly Matera, signing off.  Go see a movie.


  1. The book is quite enjoyable and worth a read. It does suffer from some problems endemic to first novels but one clearly senses that Gruen is a writer to watch.

  2. It's on my list -- in fact, I rec'd a B&N coupon specifically for that book! Need to walk up to Austin Street and grab it.