Water for Elephants has great production value. It’s a period piece that takes you back to Depression era circus road shows like old time Hollywood productions. It’s also just like all the other historical epic romances. Coming of age, forbidden romance, oppressive older generation and present day bookends because nobody thinks they can just start the story in the past.
Jacob Jankowsky (Hal Hobrook and then Robert Pattinson) wanders up to a closed circus in present day and starts telling the story of how he remembered the great Benzini Bros. tragedy of 1931. Back in ’31, Jacob (Pattinson now) had everything going for him, about to graduate Cornell veterinary school, until his parents die in an automobile accident.
The banker is blatantly insensitive, criticizing Jacob’s generous father for helping people without pay. That’ll teach him to put a lien on his business for his son’s tuition. Jacob hops a train that happens to be the Benzini Brothers’. August (Christoph Waltz) gives Jacob a Training Day about the circus, only it’s over the course of the movie so it’s not really a Day.
August’s wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) is the star performer, an acrobat who works with the horse Silver Star. Jacob’s first act as circus vet is to put Silver Star down, so he bonds with Marlena over that heartbreak. Marlena already hates her husband, and rightfully so because he’s abusive, but it’s just artificially constructing a “forbidden” love. Except for a mutual affection for animals, Marlena and Jacob don’t have any real connection. They’re just there to be the romance.
Every theme in the movie is spelled out for you. The college boy has no real world experience. The boss works people and animals to death, literally. Did you forget the bookend with old Jacob? There’s a tragedy coming too.
To replace Silver Star, August buys Rosie the elephant. Rosie does some amazing stunts in one take, some with Witherspoon doing acrobatics herself. It’s just dressing up a domestic abuse story. August gets violent with Rosie and then cries apologetically. Jacob tries to save Marlena like she’s Rose in Titanic. Still, when Jacob threatens August’s life, I never for a moment believed he was going to go there.
By the time we see the tragic circus disaster, it’s revealed already in progress which is an interesting way to present it. Water for Elephants actually has the ending I wanted Titanic to have, but no, I never wanted it as saccharin as the final bookend makes it.