For a movie that's not even close to as spectacular as the big top it depicts, Water for Elephants is still perfectly watchable. Though the central romantic story is pretty standard and formulaic, the setting is pretty interesting; Hollywood churns out plenty of love triangles, but few of them are set against a Depression-era traveling circus backdrop. The movie also benefits from an ensemble of animal performers fleshing out the supporting cast -- though a word of caution to the sensitive: most of them are shown being mercilessly mistreated.
We're introduced to the Benzini Brothers circus one dark night in 1931, as young Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) jumps on the company's train. A veterinary student at Cornell University, Jacob was just about to take his final exam when his parents were killed in a car crash, leaving a mountain of debt they'd taken on for his education. Desperate and disillusioned, Jacob soon becomes useful to the company's proprietor, a charming but terrifying man named August (Christoph Waltz), by taking on the care of the menagerie of creatures in the circus -- including the four horses that August's beautiful wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), uses for the show's main act. When one of the mares becomes ill, August replaces her with a sweet and uncannily clever elephant named Rosie, whom Jacob is charged with training. However, Jacob also falls in love with Marlena, of course, igniting August's rage, which he unleashes not only on the guilty couple, but on Rosie, whom he prods and beats brutally.
At the risk of stating the obvious, Waltz is so ridiculously compelling and eerily menacing, it could be said that he carries the movie -- if not for the fact that the show is completely stolen by Rosie the elephant (whose real name is Tai). The gorgeous pachyderm is even more charismatic than the Oscar-winning villain -- and certainly more so than the heartthrob leading man -- so don't be surprised if her mistreatment, no matter how predictable, feels particularly horrifying. For a creature that weighs several tons to convey happiness, fear, and despair through her vocalizations and body movements is both breathtaking and, in more tragic moments, heartbreaking. For such a huge animal to be so at the mercy of dominance and abuse does seem to lend a bit of subtext to the film, and help it build toward an emotional climax that feels well deserved.