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Movie Review: 'Water for Elephants' plays familiar but charming

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“Water for Elephants”
Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, James Frain, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook, Paul Schneider, Ken Foree, Tim Guinee, Mark Povinelli, Scott MacDonald
Rated: PG-13
 
When I was a kid, the first book I read was “Elephant for Rent,” Lucille Chapman's 1959 children's novel about a boy who gets an elephant for his birthday and then must go on the lam to stave off a cruel animal trainer. I read it three or four times when I was in grade school and still have it stashed away somewhere.

Then, of course, Disney's “Dumbo” came along. No one with a heart can see that film without being reduced to tears.

As an adult, working for a video production company, I had the pleasure of filming elephants at Springfield's Dickerson Park Zoo, which has a top-notch elephant breeding program.

I found the elephants we worked with to be very intelligent, sensitive creatures with an air of dignity. I also saw firsthand that they are very strong-willed beings that seem to possess a great degree of self awareness. And they can get angry.

Francis Lawrence's film “Water for Elephants” is based on the best selling, critically acclaimed novel of the same name written by Sara Gruen. It's set during the Great Depression and at heart is a very sweet love story involving two circus performers and Rosie (played by Tai), one heck of a sweet and talented elephant.

The tale is told as one long flashback, bookended by the elderly Jacob (Hal Holbrook) beginning and ending the story with memories of his younger days and adventures with the circus.

The young Jacob (an engaging Robert Pattinson) loses his parents, drops out of Cornell University's veterinary school and decides to hit the road. He doesn't know - and doesn't care - where he's going. He hops a train, which turns out to be one that is carrying the cast, crew, animals and equipment of The Benzini Brothers Circus, the No. 2 show behind The Ringling Brothers.

Jacob befriends some of the roustabouts and is captivated by the star attraction, the lovely bareback rider Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). Her main horse is suffering an ailment and Jacob proves his mettle by helping the animal heal. This allows him to get work as the circus's vet.

Marlena is married to the owner/ringmaster of the outfit, August, a rather sour and sadistic sort who takes delight in the misery of others. He's played by Christoph Waltz, who also was sour and sadistic in Quentin Tarantino's “Inglourious Basterds.”

In a classic example of “keeping up with the Joneses” (make that the “Ringlings”), August takes on a financial risk and buys an elephant.  He figures Marlena can ride an elephant bareback as easy as she can ride a horse and that the rubes in the heartland will pay to see an exotic animal and a scantily-clad beauty doing their duet.

The trouble is that Rosie doesn't seem to have much talent, although the roustabouts discover that she really likes whiskey.

Rosie's lack of cooperation infuriates August, and he begins physically abusing the animal. He also knows there's something going on between Marlena and Jacob, so he makes their lives miserable as well, going so far as to have Jacob tossed off the train while it's heading full speed down the tracks.

Jacob makes his way to the next town and his friends in the troupe help him hide out. August's attacks on Rosie increase, and it's evident she needs medical attention. Jacob is the only one who can provide it.

In one of the film's pivotal scenes, we find out that Rosie is indeed very intelligent and can do a number of tricks. It's just that she only understands commands spoken in Polish. Tai/Rosie shines here, and it's wonderful to see her kneel, sit up, roll over, play dead, trumpet and look happy doing so.

That aside, the trouble among the love triangle continues to get more troublesome, and it becomes obvious that Marlena and Jacob share much more love and affection than do Marlena and August. August then redirects much of the rage he had for Rosie at his wife.

The final act of “Water for Elephants” features many uncomfortable scenes, but in the end, when we come back to the elder Jacob, we get filled in on what became of Marlena, Jacob and most of all, Rosie.

Terry - my often mentioned movie companion - reached for a tissue and then she handed me one. I needed it.

“Water for Elephants” is not an earth-shattering film but - remember, I have a place in my heart for elephants - it's a warm and charming story that looks and plays great on the big screen.[[In-content Ad]]

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