Bring a hankie, because you’ll need it within the first five minutes of “Water for Elephants.”
Audiences are introduced first to an elderly Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook). He’s standing in the rain in a parking lot where the circus had come to town for the day. With the big rig trucks packed and loaded and ready to roll back onto the highway, Jacob stands in their way. His son was supposed to pick him up that day to take him to see the circus, but never arrives. So Jacob decides to walk out of the nursing home doors after hours to see it for himself.
A kind-hearted circus worker escorts Mr. Jankowski out of the rain and offers to call the nursing home to come pick him up, but old photographs of the Benzini Brothers prompt an emotional story-telling session instead.
Young Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is preparing to take his final exams at Cornell to become a veterinarian. It is the era of the Depression, but Jacob’s Polish family has been fortunate, and his father’s veterinary practice is ready for Jabob’s name to be added to the door.
But horrible news comes during his exams, and Jacob is told that his parents have been in a fatal car accident. With no family to call, Jacob is alone. And as it turns out, all of his parents’ money went to his tuition, and his father’s clients, due to the dire economic times, had been paying in chickens and eggs rather than in cash. There was nothing left.
Jacob hops a train. Not any train, but a circus train. With his veterinary science and Cornell resume, Jacob is hired as the Benzini Brothers’ veterinarian.
August (Christoph Waltz, Oscar winner for his performance in “Inglourious Basterds”) is the ring leader, in and out of the spotlight. Charismatic and cruel, August has an intolerance of all things that don’t go his way. His wife is Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), and she is the star of the show. Marlena’s horse, Silver Star, is injured according to Jacob, and has to be put down. This poses a major problem for August. Now he must find another star attraction for his struggling circus.
They find Rosie, the elephant.
I can’t tell you any more. Not because it would spoil the film, but because I can’t relive the relationship between August and Rosie. It is horrid, and if it disturbs you to see an animal being mistreated (and who would it not disturb?), then you’ll need to take a restroom break during one particular scene. But if it helps you to know, it all ends well. Very, very well.
Robert Pattinson, I’m sure you remember, was the vampire kid in “Twilight.” Without his makeup and fangs, he looks … well, about the same. He just smiles a little more. He won’t be lining up for any acting awards, but his love for animals was apparent throughout the film, and that makes anyone all right in my book.
The lovely Reese Witherspoon was good but not great, and her role as Marlena seemed a little old to be falling in love with such a young buckaroo as Jacob. Maybe she was the cougar act in the circus. (Sorry, had to do it.)
But let the curtains rise on Christoph Waltz, officially the best bad guy in films. As August, his presence onscreen demanded fear and attention, abhorrence and intrigue. You never knew what he was going to do next.
If you’ve read the bestselling book by Sara Gruen, you already know that “Water for Elephants” is a love story with a happy ending. And as with Gruen, director Francis Lawrence isn’t going to just hand it over, you have to work for it. You have to suffer and cry and wonder, and you even have to be a little bored here and there. But as with most love stories, it’s all worth it in the end.
n Rated PG-13 for language, violence, and a few disturbing scenes of animal cruelty, and running at 2 hours, “Water for Elephants” gets 4 bags of circus popcorn.