DVD Review of Water for Elephants: Christoph Waltz steals the show as a wicked circus ringleader who’s none too pleased about his wife’s blossoming relationship with the new veterinarian. Turns out life under the big top isn’t all fun and games.
I believe there’s a special place in hell reserved for those who hurt animals. Which is why I could never bring myself to read Sara Gruen’s best-selling novel upon which Water for Elephants is based—I knew it depicted circus animal abuse and that I wouldn’t be able to handle it. So it was with great trepidation that I watched the book’s big-screen adaptation, which stars Robert Pattinson as Jacob Jankowski, a fresh-outta-school veterinarian who’s fallen upon hard times and finds work under the big top after jumping a train belonging to The Benzini Brothers’ Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Problem is, the show is far from spectacular.
With the country falling into the Great Depression, the circus’ mastermind, August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz), is struggling to pay off his debts while also trying to find bigger and better ways to seduce people into spending their hard-earned money on his traveling mishmash of a production. He’s not above “red-lighting” any member of his crew in order to make ends meet. What’s red-lighting, you ask? Oh, it’s just throwing people off of a moving train in the dead of night to avoid paying their wages.
So yeah, August is kind of an evil dude—he doesn’t care much for other human beings, but he’s even more hateful toward animals who don’t give him their full cooperation. Jacob learns this immediately, when he’s instructed to do whatever it takes to help a horse with a severely infected hoof continue to perform—until it keels over. Then there’s the rotting meat that the lions are fed. And the gentle giant Rosie the elephant, whom August has no problem sticking over and over again with a bullhook.
Smack in the middle of the growing tension between Jacob and August is Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the show’s star performer… and August’s wife. Like Jacob, Marlena adores the show’s menagerie and can’t stand her husband’s increasingly violent behavior. The two begin a conspiratorial friendship, which shows signs of something more whenever too many drinks have been consumed. August begins to sense that he’s being played for a fool, which does not bode well for Jacob’s life expectancy.
What I found most compelling about Water for Elephants was Waltz’s performance—he was able to pull off something that I would’ve never thought possible: Evoking pity for an animal abuser. After a particularly vicious attack on Rosie (most of which is not shown on screen, thankfully), August appears to be in deep despair—offering to do whatever he can to help heal the gray giant’s wounds, swearing he’ll never blow up again. And I believed it. I believed this man had true remorse for his actions. It was solely Waltz’s brilliance in the role that convinced me why someone like Marlena would stay with such a brute, because Witherspoon was phoning it in. Her Marlena didn’t convey true feelings for any character—be it August, Jacob, or any of the animals. It was a one-note, vacant performance that led to absolutely zero chemistry between Marlena and Jacob.
As for Pattinson, he didn’t hit it out of the ball park, but there were flashes of anger and sadness during and after August’s eruptions that made him more believable in his role than Witherspoon was in hers. However, with the two romantic leads lacking any sort of spark, it was tough to buy that they’d ever conspire to run off together and leave the animals and the rest of the touring performers behind. I can only imagine that the novel’s success can be attributed to its author making the reader feel invested in the characters’ struggle. I didn’t feel that way during the film. I didn’t care about the characters at all. I just wanted all of the animals to break free, trample August, and be done with it.
More best-selling novel adaptations at Redbox:
- The Help, on DVD and Blu-ray
- Something Borrowed, on DVD and Blu-ray
- Jane Eyre
- The Lincoln Lawyer, on DVD and Blu-ray
- The Girl Who… Millennium Trilogy
Redbox movies from the cast of Water for Elephants:
- Reese Witherspoon in How Do You Know
- Christoph Waltz in The Green Hornet, on DVD and Blu-ray
- Robert Pattinson in The Twilight Saga: New Moon, and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse, on DVD and Blu-ray (both titles available in limited locations)