Andy Bockelman: ‘Water for Elephants’ an eye-catching circus film that runs a little dry |

Andy Bockelman: ‘Water for Elephants’ an eye-catching circus film that runs a little dry

Andy Bockelman is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society, and his movie reviews appear in Explore Steamboat and the Craig Daily Press.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls of all ages, are you ready for a stupendous show the likes of which you've never seen?

Wait, you say the story in "Water for Elephants" has been done before?

Well, that kind of kills the hoopla, but the show must go on!

In 1931, life is right on track for Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson), the son of Polish immigrants (Aleksandra Kaniak, Ilia Volok), who's about to get his degree in veterinary sciences from Cornell University.

But, things take an unexpected turn for the worst when his parents are killed in a car accident and the family home and medical practice are repossessed by the bank.

Homeless and penniless, Jacob takes to a life of drifting, and while riding the rails, he finds employment with the Benzini Brothers Circus, a traveling show that's struggling along with the rest of the country during the Great Depression.

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Working alongside lion tamers, acrobats and other talented performers seems a little less glamorous when you're working security at the sideshow and shoveling horse manure, but a job's a job.

Fortunately, Jacob's animal expertise comes in handy when he is approached by the circus's manager, August (Christoph Waltz), to be the show's on-hand veterinarian, as well as the trainer for his newest attraction, a bull elephant named Rosie.

But, even as Jacob starts to rediscover his purpose in life, he has a new set of problems, as he starts to fall in love with August's gorgeous equestrian wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).

Judging by his scorecard thus far, it seems like Pattinson only knows how to play two kinds of roles: brooding protector or agitated victim.

Since he's been playing the former a little too much lately in the "Twilight" movies, it only seems right that he'd shift to the latter.

Still, Jacob, the recipient of multiple beatings, isn't the spineless young man the actor played in the little seen "How to Be," and Pattinson never really lets his guard down for what should be a sensitive showing.

In a wonderful small bit, Hal Holbrook splits the difference as Jacob in the present-day, reminiscing to the manager (Paul Schneider) of a modern circus about the time he spent with Benzini Brothers that changed his life forever.

As far as people in days gone by, Witherspoon has a better handle on her part as beautiful, tragic Marlena, who understands horses better than she does people and feels an instant kinship with Jacob because of their shared love of animals.

Waltz is a bit of a beast himself as volatile, vociferous August, the show's tyrannical ringmaster, who's quick to realize Jacob's potential but also not hesitant to treat him and his other workers like peanut shells — tossing them aside and stepping on them for good measure.

At its best, this nostalgic drama strives to capture a spirit of an almost forgotten America, when downtrodden people could still have their spirits lifted by the wonders of the Big Top.

When the movie focuses on the roar of the crowd and the excitement in the air, it's almost as good as recreating the sense of desperate grandeur in a Depression-era traveling show, or at least the genre of the long-defunct circus movie, emulating "The Greatest Show on Earth," "Trapeze" and, of course, "Dumbo."

Likewise, the threat of trying to buck the hierarchy therein is almost as imposing as it is in the classic horror movie, "Freaks."

But, it's with the title animal that we see the film's biggest theme and arguably its biggest flaw. The topic of animal abuse, crucial within Sara Gruen's novel, is supposedly the most important part of the story, but Rosie's treatment just becomes one more ball being juggled along with Jacob and Marlena's secret romance and a growing mutiny against August.

Ultimately, the balls are dropped after a somewhat draggy plot when the combination of all these elements winds up being anti-climactic. And though the filmmakers scramble to pick up the pieces, even the rubes in audiences will notice the slip.

While it's clearly lovingly made, "Water for Elephants" isn't exactly a film that will go down in the annals of circus movies.

Elephants may never forget and Jacob might have a crystal clear memory, but you might need the mind of a pachyderm to recall it in a few years.

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Movie at a glance

“Water for Elephants”

2 out of 4 stars

122 minutes

Starring: Robert Patinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz and Hal Holbrook.