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Movie Review

Water for Elephants

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for moments of intense violence and sexual content.

Reviewed by: Misty Wagner

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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Romance Drama Adaptation
2 hr. 2 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
April 22, 2011 (wide—2,700+ theaters)
DVD: November 1, 2011
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Relevant Issues
Copyright, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

poor in the Bible

death of mother and father

orphans in the Bible

leaving home

animals in the Bible





animal abuse

FEAR, Anxiety and Worry—What does the Bible say? Answer

love triangle

falling in love


Featuring: Reese WitherspoonMarlena
Robert PattinsonJacob
Christoph WaltzAugust
Paul Schneider … Charlie
Jim Norton … Camel
Hal HolbrookOld Jacob
Mark Povinelli … Kinko/Walter
Richard Brake … Grady
Stephen Monroe Taylor … Wade
Ken Foree … Earl
Scott MacDonald … Blackie
James Frain … Rosie’s Caretaker
more »
Director: Francis Lawrence—“I Am Legend,” “Constantine
Producer: 3 Arts Entertainment
Crazy Horse Effects
Flashpoint Entertainment
more »
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

“Life is the most spectacular show on Earth”

“Water for Elephants” is poetically beautiful in a way that is both vintage and esthetically pleasing. With creative camera shots and filters, filmmakers were able to give us an idea of what the Great Depression era of the American circus may have looked like. Magical acts and courageous animal trainers may have been the sort of thing that brought a gleam of hope to a child’s eye. For that one moment, as a tight rope walker dangled above the crowds and families below, maybe those struggling and hurting people weren’t thinking so much about how bad the state of economic things were. There are visually stunning moments where “Water for Elephants” is able to share the wonder and allure… Of course, this movie is more about what is happening behind the ringed acts and tent shows. It’s about the men and women who make the circus. It’s about their own weaknesses and struggles intensified by the time and the lack of money.

Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is the son of Polish immigrants. Having come from extreme poverty, the Great Depression does not seem to affect them. Owning their own home, they work hard to put Jacob through Cornell, so that he can become a veterinarian and go on to practice with his father. It is on the day that he is to finish his licensing exam and receive his certification, that tragedy strikes Jacob’s family, leaving him with nothing. In just an instant, he becomes one man, in a majority, out on his own, looking for work. It is this which leads him to decide to ride the rails, and it just so happens that the train he hops is the Benzini Brother’s circus train.

Once the ringmaster August (Christoph Waltz) learns that Jacob is a veterinarian, he is quick to bring him into his trusted circle. A friendship forms between the two, despite Jacob’s attraction to Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) who is August’s wife. Once Jacob sees August’s dark side though, things change for Jacob, and the course of his life is entirely altered, once again…

With it’s PG-13 rating, I want to strongly caution parents about taking their children to see this film. While there is much content that isn’t appropriate, the reality of the film is that it’s a window looking into a truly dark side. The content is incredibly heavy, dealing with issues such as animal abuse and cruelty, the buying and selling (and later disposing) of people, spousal abuse, murder, adultery, alcoholism and more. From the time Jacob is introduced, behind the scenes at the Benzini Brothers, until the very end, the viewer is exposed to such things. Granted, sometimes there are light-hearted and sweet moments, but you can still always feel the sadness there. Of course, it is this sadness which makes “Water for Elephants” an incredibly moving film.

The good:

The character of August is complex—not solely good guy, not solely bad guy. His struggles are human, and I appreciate that in a film.

There are a few strong characters, in the movie, who do stand up for what is right.

The bad:

There is a scene where Jacob is taken into a peep show tent. Though no nudity is on screen, it is certainly implied.

There is some crude dialogue in a few different scenes, along with profanity.

There is one sex scene. Though there is no nudity, it’s a fairly intense scene.

There is quite a bit of violence, both where people and animals are concerned.

I did enjoy the film, despite it’s darkness. Though the intimacy between Jacob and Marlena is adultery, the details of their situation (domestic violence and abuse) is something that resonates with far too many. “Water for Elephants” weaves a relevant tale, even for today’s society, about kindness and love. Adapted from the novel, of the same title, by Sara Gruen, the film is an adequate adaptation.

Violence: Heavy / Profanity: Heavy / Sex/Nudity: Heavy

Viewer CommentsSend your comments
Comments below:
Positive—I have mixed emotions about this film, because even though it contains adultery, I am not immune to what a great achievement it truly is. I loved it. It was beautiful—in its artistry, characterization, musical score, and its message about valuing all life, whether it is an animal or a human being.

While a forbidden love story is at its heart, I appreciated the fact that the main characters showed restraint through the majority of the film; it was apparent to me that Marlena wanted her marriage to work and never intended to run off with Jacob; he, too, did not take his feelings for her lightly, and, at one point, knows he should leave, so he clearly believes an affair would be wrong. It does not make their inevitable choice more excusable, but, at least, they are not avoiding the seriousness of adultery.

Oscar-winner Waltz turns in a tremendous performance that will literally make your skin crawl—he is intensely frightening, once his charm fades.

The content is fairly tame for the rating, but does include one implied love scene, and for animal lovers, the scenes in which Rosie is violently punished with a bull prod, and a horse is put down are very hard to watch. In spite of this (and really, the filmmakers only took it as far as they needed to), most of the abuse is implied or takes place off screen), there is something special, and even magical, about this story. But pack the tissues—you’ll need them (even if there is a happy ending).
My Ratings: Moral rating: Average / Moviemaking quality: 5
—Charity, age 27 (USA)
Positive—My wife and I found this movie to be very engrossing. All moral issues mentioned above are on target and should not be ignored. This is not for children or young teens. As Hollywood movies go, it was very well done: attention-grabbing, more action and suspense than one would expect from a “chick-flick,” beautifully filmed, and emotionally satisfying. Unless one avoids all movies with any morally offensive content whatsoever, than I would recommend this movie highly.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 4
—Jeremy Klein, age 55 (USA)
Positive—I was hoping against hope the story wouldn’t turn out like it did. Infidelity is a crying shame. Brothers, don’t put yourself in any situation where you are alone with another man’s wife, particularly if she’s as gorgeous as Reese Witherspoon. I did once, and while I didn’t compromise my beliefs or integrity, I held her hand, because she asked, and I was a sucker for the immediate physical comfort.

Some may scoff and some may laugh, but for those who share my faith, you know this is an incredibly dangerous situation to be in. There are two key principles from the word regarding this:

1) Don’t covet another man’s wife (from the good ol’ stone tablets themselves), and, as Paul warned in 1 Corinthians 6,
2) FLEE from sexual immorality—all other sins a person commits are outside the body…. My fellow brothers, be accountable. Take a third member into closed quarters when spending time with the opposite sex.

Okay, I’m stepping off the pulpit, because, apart from the infidelity element, this is actually a beautiful film. Three reasons:

1) It’s a period piece with excellent costuming and bountiful colors, thanks in large part to the circus world this story revolves around.

2) Christoph Waltz aka Colonel Hans Lander from Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” turns in a commendable performance as the volatile circus entrepreneur. This man is the next Ben Kingsley. And hey, Inglourious is a great film. Don’t knock it without trying it (I did the same—it is NOT as violent as you think—it is a spaghetti western, meaning violence is punctuated and infrequent—the buildup to the showdown is what s’ghetti westerns are all about).

3) Hal Holbrook costars; he’s the man who played the old old old man in the Chris McCandless biopic “Into the Wild.” This guy reminds me of the older gentleman we worked with a few weeks ago for the 48 hour film festival: real venerable, real emotive, and totally dedicated to working his craft with every fiber of his being. Holbrook is an amazing actor, and I wish his role could have been expanded. The two main actors, surprisingly, are kinda flat in this story. I don’t blame them as much as I do the screenwriter. He is responsible for breathing life into the characters to make them separate entities.

He failed on Rob Pattinson’s behalf as well as Miss Witherspoon’s. Rather than make a well-rounded character out of Pattinson, the director opted for the ol’ Top Gun trick: multiple, tiresomely long, extreme close-ups of Pattinson’s mug. Smiling. Frowning. Staring. Doesn’t matter.

Watch Top Gun again. That movie is shamelessly a Tom Cruise vehicle. Methinks Hollywood is trying to generate another Cruise outta Pattinson. Also, the dialogue gets a little campy in various places, but these little gripes (like the bad sound mixing of the gunshot fired off in the train cab… *shudders*) are negligible because the film is a strong effort altogether. It has a “Big Fish” feel to it, but doesn’t quite compare to Burton’s crowning opus.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 4½
—Mega Tron, age 25 (USA)
Positive—When a movie comes out that’s based on a book, I usually end up reading the book after watching the film… this story was an exception. The movie never came to the small-town theaters where I live, and I loved the idea of a depression-era circus story. Half-way into it though, and I was almost wishing I hadn’t bought the book. While I enjoyed the story parts, the barrage of sexual content was ruining it for me.

So… I was very glad to find that the profanity and sex, while still present, was greatly toned down in the film. This is an excellent book-to-film adaptation. The scenery was beautiful, the acting was top-notch… I would definitely watch it again.

There is the problem of the main characters having an affair; however, I don’t mind it in this story because it wasn’t an issue of being restless or having a bad attitude, but of escaping from an abusive husband. Afterwards, the girl spends the rest of her life married to the nice guy that treats her right.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Better than Average / Moviemaking quality: 5
—Kadie Jo, age 19 (USA)
Neutral—After reading the book, I was happy to know that there was a movie coming out that was based on it. “Water for Elephants” is a great movie with great performances. It has a touch of classic Hollywood to it; something current cinema lacks. It does stick to the book most of the time with some details left out. In the book, it is stated that August is a paranoid schizophrenic. In the film, August seems to be a guy who happens to be abusive to his wife and his circus animals. Also, in the book, the circus was headed by a guy named Uncle Al; August was merely an animal trainer.

My objections were the adultery factor and the brief-but-lingering love scene, especially in the face of spousal abuse from a cuckolded husband, as well as some sexual references and other objectionable material.

Performances by Robert Pattinson and Christoph Waltz are awesome. Waltz has a knack for portraying bad guys, and he does his job well. I felt that Reese Witherspoon’s character was a little stiff, and I believe that she was miscast in her role as August’s wife, Marlena. Other than that, it was a great film.

Fans of the book won’t be disappointed.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Average / Moviemaking quality: 4
—Shannon H., age 29 (USA)
Negative—I thought the film was well done. The main character kind of scares me a bit from his previous role as a vampire in another movie. I love Reese Witherspoon, though. She always gives her all in each movie. I thought she was great. The movie did stay true to the book, but I thought the book was better, as they usually are. I found the movie to be quite depressing and have been unable to go to another movie as a result.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 4½
—Terry, age 56 (USA)