Back in the day, “The Wonderful World of Disney” came on every Sunday night, showing one half of a Disney movie over two Sundays.
One of my favorites was “Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus.” It was the story of a boy who ran away from home and joined the circus. What it did was make a boy want to leave home for the big top.
“Water for Elephants” tries to conjure that same kind of romance. Robert Pattinson is Jacob, a man who lost his parents in the last year of his studies to be a veterinarian. His grief and the Great Depression force him on the road.
He meets up with a circus and joins as a roustabout. August (Christoph Waltz) is the boss and ringmaster.
He’s a cruel man who lives by petty rules; they boil down to the fact that he is the boss. Rule-breakers pay a penalty that is generally life-threatening.
When Jacob tells August he is a vet, August knows the value of an Ivy League-trained vet and decides to keep Jacob around.
The circus’ main attraction is Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) – August’s wife and equestrian performer. Jacob discovers that Marlena’s favorite horse has a terrible hoof disease and needs to be put down.
August tells Jacob to do whatever he can to keep the horse going. When Jacob disagrees with that plan, conflict ensues.
Romantic sparks eventually fly between Jacob and Marlena – sparks that are kindled when the circus acquires an elephant and Jacob becomes its trainer.
“Water for Elephants” is based on a best-selling novel of the same name by Sara Gruen. I didn’t read the book, but I hope it’s better developed than the movie.
One of the main problems is a lack of character development, especially for the supporting players.
Camel (Jim Norton) is an old roustabout with a drinking problem. He has words of wisdom when Jacob needs them, but we know nothing of him. He services the story by adding a word along the way, but we learn nothing about who he is.
Ditto for Walter (Mark Povinelli), a little person who performs in the circus as a clown. I wanted to know more about the character who becomes Jacob’s roommate, but I was never given any back story.
The movie is also miscast; Robert Pattinson (of “Twilight” fame) is not right for the part of Jacob. Early in the movie we see Hal Holbrook, who plays an old Jacob; you can see passion in Holbrook’s Jacob.
That is lacking with Pattinson, even in his relationship with Marlena. He just seems to mope about the movie with no real fire.
I wanted to like “Water for Elephants,” but I just could not. I wanted a story about a person who ran away to the circus and the romance of the big top. Instead, we have a pedestrian love story that could have been much more.
Mike Parnell is pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for moments of intense violence and sexual content.
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writer: Richard LaGravenese (based on the novel by Sara Gruen)
Cast: Robert Pattinson: Jacob; Reese Witherspoon: Marlena; Christoph Waltz: August; Jim Norton: Camel; Mark Povinelli: Walter; Hal Holbrook: Old Jacob.
The movie’s website is here.
Michael Parnell is pastor of Temple Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. He is married and has two boys. His love is for movies, and he can be found in a theater most Fridays.