Friday, April 29, 2011

A Watershed Moment

I can't really remember ever going to see a circus growing up. No, Cirque du Soliel doesn't count. The circus most people are familiar with seem as though it has remained the same after countless decades. Even if you've never been, you probably have an idea of what to expect: high-wire escapades, exotic animals, human acts like the bearded lady or the tattooed dwarf, clowns. The more things change, the more they stay the same, as many of these circus companies have adjusted over time to become the entertainment juggernauts they are; even their most ardent opponents have to acknowledge the effect that those colorful tents and performers have on the average populace. But those same opponents would love to point out the countless acts of animal cruelty and human rights violations that have gone practically unnoticed, for fear it would diminish the drama that is the "Greatest Show on Earth." That's where Water for Elephants comes in. The film, based on the bestselling book by Sara Gruen, takes a hard look at the methods of traveling circuses during one of America's darkest hours, the Great Depression, and introduces to those who watch things they cannot help but be entranced by, whether they've seen a circus or not.

Supposedly, Rosie was a better kisser
Robert Pattinson stars as Edward Cul... I mean Jacob Jankowski, who one day has his whole life planned out ahead of him, only for everything to change irrevocably in one day. The day he is to take his final exams to graduate from Cornell University with a Veterinary degree, Jacob's parents are killed in an automobile accident, and he learns that due to his father being behind on the mortgage, the bank is foreclosing on his house. Homeless and wandering, Jacob finds himself an unlikely job with the Benzini Brothers traveling circus. He eventually enters a guarded friendship with circus manager August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz) and the star of the show, his wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). Hired on as an animal handler, Jacob sees how abusive August is of both people and animals, and it is only a matter of time before he must do something, if only to save Marlena - who he loves - and new show elephant Rosie, who he finds under his care.

Four Best-Actor nominees in one shot, anyone?
It may be too often said that the performance of an animal is the best part of a film, but far more rarely can that be construed as a good thing. From the moment adorable elephant Rosie - played by a very talented Asian elephant named Tai - makes her appearance a third of the way through the film, she manages to steal every scene in which she takes part. Obviously intelligent and showing impeccable timing (not to mention a comedic flair), Tai excels in whatever she's tasked with, whether it be a simple trick or as a victim of physical abuse. She is by far the best performer on screen, but don't be fooled into thinking that everyone else are just chumps. Pattinson is especially a surprise, proving he can put on a good show outside of the Mormon vampire set. Perhaps setting the stage for a long career combining all of his Dean-esque talents, Pattinson proves that he can handle the leading man moniker with ease. Witherspoon is also a delight, proving that she's worth so much more than her relatively brainless roles in films like Legally Blonde and 2010's How Do You Know. Hers is even more challenging for having to learn physical routines with her pachyderm co-star, and she works the different angles of her character like a true professional. That Waltz is practically the least of these four stars should not weigh negatively on him; as the film's villain, he is properly dangerous, skeevy and manic. However, Waltz also manages to convey the few positive traits Augustus contains, making for far more than a mere one-dimensional bad guy. All the performances, from the biggest star to the tiniest bit role, are excellently played and truly connect with the audience.

Sigh. He's so DREAMY.
One thing I was impressed by was the story that director Francis Lawrence chose to tell. He could have easily made the film all about the romance between Jacob and Marlena at the expense of the two-faced circus business. Instead, most of the film actually focuses on the conflict between Jacob and Augustus, with the fate of the circus and everyone aboard somewhere in the middle. Rosie is also featured much more than you would guess from the previews, as her role and that of some of the other animals shows us of the horrible cruelty that performance beasts underwent at a time when fresh meat couldn't be afforded for the lions, star horses are driven to the point of physical breakdown and a cruel trainer would leave welts and open sores on the skin of an elephant in a fit of rage. While we are led to believe that this was partly due to the crushing realities of the Depression, there's no reason to believe that these types of goings on don't happen nowadays. Animal cruelty still happens, as recently as 2009 when Kenneth Field (CEO of Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus) admitted to treatment of elephants in ways counter to the US Animal Welfare Act. Presumably even worse in this earlier era, Water for Elephants does a good job showing us abusers who treat these innocent victims even worse than the underpaid manual labor they use to set up their Big Tops.

Trivia fun! In a deleted scene in Vanity Fair, these two played estranged mother and son!
The film does use some CGI effects, most notably in a few scenes in which characters ride atop the circus train while the night sky twinkles in the distance. Sadly, these scenes don't look too realistic, but at least they manage to convey the comfortable mood the story is going for. Most of Water for Elephants is nothing like Lawrence's previous works, the more visually-stylish Constantine and I Am Legend (or his countless music videos). Most everything looks quite realistic, and while the few instances of SFX usage are not meant to wow us, the actual bits and pieces of circus acts are the true eye-poppers; from glimpses of the aforementioned high-wire acts and animal tricks we get our excitement, as though we were patrons of the circus and not the cinema. If there's anything involved there besides amazing camerawork and a great idea of what the director wanted to show, I sure couldn't find it.

Not even the "Greatest Show this Year", but still good nonetheless
Water For Elephants has a few flaws, the most notable being a contrived ending that surprises only in the fact that you never thought they would take the simple route to victory. Still, the word "magical" perfectly works for the majority of the film's execution, and for that reason it makes the 2011 Top 10 list at #7. Of course, if you're more interested in seeing elephants, you can always check out the International Elephant Foundation or perhaps even this article about them. I had a great time and this is a title I would definitely recommend for audiences of all ages.

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