New on DVD: Water for Elephants (2011)

The best moment in Water for Elephants has almost nothing to do with its stars: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz.

The strong suit of this melodrama from music-video director-turned-feature filmmaker Francis Lawrence is its sense of time and place, namely America in 1931. And its high point comes early on when our young hero stumbles across a traveling circus and watches as the big top is raised.

It's a magical moment driven by the pounding of big hammers and the lump-in-the-throat thrill of watching the huge tent heave into place. It’s guaranteed to thrill the kid each of us.

But it raises a question. Do young people still dream of running off with the circus?

Or does that fantasy belong to a vanishing generation?

In any case, we get a sense of what the fuss was all about by watching this likable if not exactly lovable adaptation of Sara Gruen's best-seller.

In the wake of his parents' deaths in a car accident, veterinary student Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is homeless, jobless and broke. Jumping a passing train, he finds himself sucked into the circus world with all its tacky splendors and colorful argot.

The Benzini Bros. Circus is run by August (Christoph Waltz), whose Old World charm can't quite mask his brutality or the seediness of his operation. He's married to the show's star attraction, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), a blond vision with a bareback riding act.

Taking advantage of Jacob's training as a vet, August puts the lad in charge of Rosie, the massive elephant purchased to give the financially strapped Benzini Bros. at least one first-class act. And because he envisions Marlena riding the creature, that means Jacob and the married beauty will have to spend much time together.

Jeeze...do you think some hanky panky might be in the works?

Many things about the film succeed, like the tent-raising segment. Rosie is played by an elephant named Tai, who proves herself quite the animal actress.

And Waltz (an Oscar winner for Inglourious Basterds) is unsurpassed in expressing the sinister beneath a cultured veneer. He may be the best movie villain since Basil Rathbone.

The romance, though ... well, it feels a little anemic. There's just not much heat between Pattinson (of the Twilight saga, of course) and Witherspoon. While they acquit themselves well elsewhere in the movie, the heavy-breathing scenes suggest little passion, certainly not enough for Jacob to be taking so big a risk.

Ironically, there's far more genuine romance delivered by Hal Holbrook, who in a prologue and epilog plays the elderly Jacob. The film’s best-acted and directed moments are these modern moments, in which Mr. Holbrook's old man pays a visit to a contemporary circus and spends a night talking and drinking with its manager (Paul Schneider).

Ironically, hearing this veteran actor describe his undying love for Marlena is actually more effective than seeing it acted out in front of us.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.

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