REVIEW: Water for Elephants “pretty darn close to being one of the greatest shows on Earth”

Water for Elephants gets 3 out of 4 popcorns from NBC news station in Baltimore:

Robert Pattinson sheds his Edward Cullen vampire skin for a meaty role in “Water for Elephants,” taking the reins and proving that he’s got what it takes to be a leading man in something other than the franchise that made him famous.

No doubt, Pattinson will draw his “Twilight” admirers to the romantic story based on a 2006 best-selling book by Sarah Gruen, but they’ll find something more in the beautifully adapted movie. The tale follows Jacob Jankowski, the son of Polish immigrants during the Great Depression whose dream is to follow in his father’s footsteps as a veterinarian. After a personal tragedy, he ditches veterinary school and his upstate New York home, and jumps a train with no destination in mind.

As fate and destiny intervene, it just so happens that the train that Jacob stows away on carries The Benzini Bros. Circus across the United States. No sooner than he’s pulled into a sidecar, he’s caught up in the roar of the greasepaint, shoveling manure, and creating camaraderie with the roustabouts. The performers are off-limits, he’s told. Never speak to them or even glance their way, one of his new pals tells him.

When he’s sent to meet the ringleader, August (Christoph Waltz), who is also the circus’s owner (the two were separate in the novel, but are brought together into one character in the screenplay), his life profoundly changes. August decides to put Jacob’s veterinary skills to work, but no sooner than he gets the appointment that the compassionate vet begins to butt heads with the money-hungry circus owner. There’s also the star attraction of the fading circus, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) who shares Jacob’s love for animals, but who obeys the abusive August’s every request not only as a boss, but as her domineering husband.In true dramatic fashion, Jacob and Marlena’s animal attraction pulls them together, creating a rift that will create tension under the Big Top.

The film gets off to a shaky start, however, with Jacob shown as an old man (masterfully played by Hal Holbrook), newly escaped from a nursing home and reflecting what happened that fateful year in 1931. It’s all very “Titanic”-esque, with “Elephants” having more than a few been-there-before “Titanic” moments. “Come with me,” the young Jacob says as he’s about to jump off the train, gripping Marlena’s hand.

Yet the magical setting created by director Francis Lawrence gives the movie its own set of dreamy moments, fulfilling every fantasy one might have ever had of running away with the circus.Pattinson’s characterization of Jacob as a mysterious outsider contrasts dramatically with Waltz’s tyranny over his circus. Witherspoon plays Marlena some place in the middle, calm and cool when she’s with Jacob, but dutiful and hanging on to her star status with August.

Yet it’s the 9,000 pound elephant in the room that serves as the center of all of the film’s inter-connected relationships. Rosie is a cast off from a circus that August buys in hopes it will save The Benzini Bros. show. She’s portrayed by Tai, a 42-year-old elephant, who the movie studio calls a “motion picture veteran” having appeared in “Bigger Than Life” and “The Jungle Book.”Get out the Kleenex, animal lovers. You will shed more than a few tears and have great concern for Rosie in a scene where August heinously abuses the elephant. But feel comfort in knowing that the filmmakers took extra special care around Tai during those scenes. Through digital effects and careful animal training, Tai was protected and never even slightly exposed to a prod or poke. The Animal Humane Association monitored all of the scenes involving animals.

Still, even knowing all aforementioned behind-the-scenes facts, animal lovers will have a tough time watching some of the scenes. The emotion that is stirred, however, is a true testament to the film and the book’s richness in its portrayal of the dynamics of all kinds of relationships: relationship with self, family, friends and, yes, animals.

“Water for Elephants” is, much like its main attraction, a gentle giant. It comes pretty darn close to being one of the greatest shows on Earth.

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