Water for Elephants, based on novel by Sara Gruen
The adaptation for the big screen could have benefited from better circumstances, such as a more suitable lead man, for the actor Robert Pattison, talented and able as he is, does not give a convincing performance in this feature.
Alas, he is not the only one, indeed, it is probably not just the actors who seem to take the wrong path, the concept, screenplay and other factors are probably, in their turn, responsible for the lack of enthusiasm, effervescence generated by this motion picture.
It has a Metascore of just 52, which means that the critics have not been overwhelmed.
Robert Pattison is Jacob Jankowski, the hero of this film, a young man whose parents die, misfortune aggravated by the fact that he loses his home and everything else.
Without any means, he tries to join the circus lead by August, portrayed by Cristoph Waltz, generally brilliant in the role of the villain, but somewhat awkward, perhaps a little over the top in a construction that anyway seems to be unbalanced, to lack a sense of unity, or maybe something else.
August is married to Marlena, played by Reese Witherspoon, who gives a decent if not outstanding performance, in the role of the star of the show, the acrobat who rides the superb horse and at the same time displays acrobatic skills on the moving animal.
The manager of the circus refuses the protagonist in the first instance, pointing out that everybody works hard in his enterprise and he sees nothing that the young man can bring to his outfit.
Nonetheless, the hero insists, points out that he has some education as a vet and that his main attraction, the horse with which Marlena brings in the public and the money has a serious problem.
Indeed, upon further inspection, the problem of the smart animal proves to be much more serious, for it is not just an abscess, as his rider thought, that will go away with cold towels.
The beautiful white horse is in excruciating pain, will be lame soon, but this is the first time when the cruelty of the ruthless manager is apparent, for he says that the animal will perform to the very end, since he has seen people starve and he is not moved by the suffering of beasts.
Nevertheless, in agreement with Marlena, the young vet puts an end to the suffering of the poor animal and this attracts the wrath of Khan, the master of the show brings in his henchmen, they pull the culprit half way out of the moving train of the circus and it seems that they will kill him.
The dialogue, violence and attitude all point that way, only Jacob escapes death this time and the manager seems to enjoy it when he says that others would enjoy the death of the star attraction- indeed, the vet had observed that the meat given to them had been abominable and rotten- the lions, tiger and others would now eat fresh meat.
Before all this, August had made a frightening jest, making the young new employer feed the lion, by opening the door to the cage, placing the bucket in, only to be grabbed by the ferocious feline, to the absolute joy of the laughing proprietor, who finally says...he has no teeth.
It soon becomes evident that this character is actually a a maniac, a sadist who throws his employees from the moving train, when he feels he cannot cope with adversity, their challenge and request to be paid, when he fails to give them their wages and he is absolutely a psychopath when it comes to animals too.
To replace the dead horse and try to attract the public, August buys an aging elephant called Rosie, mistreated by her former stupid owner and alas, soon to be abused by the terrible negative personage.
The manager of the circus wants his wife to ride the new star, just as she did with the horse, against her protests that she knows nothing about elephants and Jacob to be the handler of the new, giant star of the show.
During the first performance, Rosie walks out, Marlena just about manages to hang out to a an iron bar and the elephant is off to town, where she stops to eat some cabbage and is recuperated by the hero, only to be savagely hurt with a poke with which is repeatedly stabbed, until her side is covered in blood.
The loathsome, abhorrent master of the game had given a " lesson" on how to cope with an animal, who needs to see who the boss is, the latter has to have the means to inflict pain and the necessary attitude, for the animal would sense if he is feeble and powerful enough to handle it.
This was indeed the repulsive concept and the reason why circuses are now banned in most civilized lands, for the basis for handling wild animals was force, the stick and the electric shock, with other means of abuse.
It is true that even dogs recognize the alpha male and it helps to show them that the owner is at the top of the food chain, the leader of the pack, otherwise it could be dangerous, the pet would want to get to the top position, with a weak owner and it might become impossible to make it come, stay, obey or even prevent him from biting.
The method to make the pets realize this is not with the whips though, but with firm, decisive, constant, balanced, sure training.
When August seems to be ready to kill or anyway dispose of Rosie as untrainable and of no use to the show and his finances, Jacob finds out that the elephant can and would obey if the handler uses some words of Polish.
From this moment of revelation forward, it is all Wine and Roses, with the exception of the lunatic in charge and the growing emotion that the hero feels around Marlena and which seems to have a response in kind.
The jealous mad man resorts to vicious violence, beating the rival - even in a period when his faithful wife has given no reason to complain or doubt her loyalty- and it is all heading towards an expected climax, which in some ways the public can anticipate and then it is somehow mentioned from the beginning, when we have an old man lost at the circus and he begins to tell the story of
Water for Elephants
In conclusion, this is not a bad movie, but it could have been so much better, perhaps with different performers, maybe with some other perspective on the script and changes in the view of the director...maybe with a different team altogether.
It is also possible to have different ingredients and still find flaws in the tragic tale connected with the suffering of gentle animals at the hands of human beings, bent on making a profit from their suffering.