Those who refuse to see life in straightjacket terms will realize that whatever life is, good or bad or ugly, one can’t deny that like the tagline of this film, it is indeed the greatest show on earth. A show in which you are the star attraction and which you also direct. “Water For Elephants” is that effective melodrama, a slice of life in a real show business, the circus that will tug at your heart.
In the 1930s depression-inflicted America, August (Christoph Waltz) struggles to keep his circus alive. His star act is also his wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). A wandering veterinary student Jacob (Robert Pattinson) joins the travelling circus and his effort to train a newly-discovered elephant turns around its fortune.
However, Jacob and Marlena fall in love and the love triangle becomes a threat for the circus and the elephant.
The major drawback of the film is that despite their best efforts, the chemistry between Pattinson and Witherspoon does not really seem to work. And though on their own they do a decent job, it is Cristoph Waltz whose waltz through the film oozes as much terror on screen as cinema’s best villains.
Shorter than both Pattinson and Witherspoon, Waltz seems like a menacing midget before their large, caring hearts who personifies brutality and terror despite his character’s charade of reasoning care.
Though the film may seem sentimental, it is sentimentality not of the sloppy variety, but one that beats with genuine warmth most would be able to relate to. The film’s mood and romance is also a little old fashioned, which is perfect considering its setting. Also, despite a little slowness in pace, it flows with its own lilting but firm rhythm.
The attention to detail is immaculate, creating not just the atmosphere of a 1930s American circus with its whirly showgirls, huge swirly tents and its army of animals and midgets, but also the mood of America and its prohibition and depression in believable shades of multiple, life-sized colours. To do this, despite confining itself to the limited space of the circus tents and its travelling train, displays ample skills from writer Richard LaGravenese who has adapted the book by Sara Gruen and director Francis Lawrence.
If you like “Seabiscuit” or “Big Fish”, this is a film you must not miss. Animal lovers will especially enjoy the antics of Rosie the elephant in the film. She is the cutest, funniest and the most memorable elephant ever on screen. Sometimes she stands on her hind legs and at others on the front, she quietly sneaks out to drink lemonade, and curls up to Pattinson and does antics that will have young girls swoon ‘choo chweet’.
Yet, if you look deep, the elephant is not just a character, but a metaphor for life that should ideally be free and allowed to exist with its giant loveliness, but is actually caged by the brutality of man. The violence of August on the elephant can be seen as the aggression of a floundering society, of the depression in the film, on beautiful people.
The circus in the film is also an analogy for life. If life be the greatest show on earth, then the characters we encounter in it have got to be its greatest performers.