Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes, and Water for Elephants finds immense pleasure in juxtaposing extreme dimensionality with budding emotion. Director Francis Lawrence stages this aesthetic motif within the colorful microcosm of a traveling circus fighting off bankruptcy during the Great Depression. Shot by the great cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, the film relishes levels of light and texture, often pulling back in wide angle to let the sheer size of an elephant or the grace of a woman on horseback dangle before our eyes. Economic collapse hovers on the periphery, like a wolf waiting for its prey to fall lame. This pressure, represented by the countless "dead circuses" seen throughout the story, inevitably weighs heavily against the film's more fantastical and hopeful elements. Wonder seems to be the only glue keeping Water for Elephant's big top from collapsing.
Told in standard flashback/voiceover narration by an old man (Hal Holbrook) musing to a fellow circus aficionado, Water for Elephants feels like a sweet fable adrift in a sea of darker realities. Poverty, isolation, and destitution are apparent, but often relegated to the background. Wild Boys of the Road this is not. While most of the United States is drifting aimlessly into a black hole, you'd never know it from visiting the house of Cornel veterinary student Jacob Jankowsky (Robert Pattinson), whose Polish emigrant parents sacrificed everything to make his life structured and supportive. That all changes when Jacob's mother and father are killed in a car wreck, forcing the young man to give up school and hit the road. One train hitch later and he's landed a temporary gig with a low-tier circus named the Benzini Brothers, a wondrously seedy outfit headed by the masochistic ringleader August (Christoph Waltz) and his graceful wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the star performer for the show.
Illusion defines each of these characters and their motivations. August invites Jacob into his close circle of thugs and performers only because the young man has knowledge of veterinary medicine, and could potentially help the circus compete with the dreaded Ringling Brothers. Marlena is immediately attracted to Jacob, but her flirtations only rise to uncomfortable levels after drinking too much champagne. Caught between a psychotic businessman and a luminary lost woman, Jacob is more observer than hero. The film is most interesting when his perspective is limited to glimpses and flashes, whether it's watching Marlena train her horses from a distance, or gazing at August orate to the crowd overwhelmed by a harsh spot light.
In the first hour of Water for Elephants, the core triangle of characters seamlessly merges with the legions of other performers and workers. The circus becomes a living, breathing organism with hierarchies that are at first deeply fascinating. Waltz complicates the grandeur and poetry of the institution by calling it "a sovereign nation," an independent and fluid community run by the iron fist of its leader. The ways in which each character subverts this fascist code makes the film substantive even while delving into familiar territory. Jacob disobeys a direct order from August and chooses to shoot an injured horse instead of watching it suffer, while Marlena slyly acts on her affections for Jacob through subtle glances and fleeting dances. This pattern culminates when August purchases an elephant named Rosie as the show's new main attraction, and Jacob grows increasingly attached to the beast's kindness and power, treating her as a friend instead of an animal. For a while, these sublime moments allow the film to survive the many cracks of sentimentality ripping at the façade.
When the dam of secrets finally breaks, Water for Elephants hastily veers into conventional territory. The illusion, the magic, the wonder disappear, replaced by tepid romance, obvious revenge, and pandering melodrama. At this point, the characters seem preordained to follow a specific linear track riddled with exposition and sentimentality. The climax, supposedly one of the worst circus disasters according to our narrator, is neither epic nor convincing, and merely an excuse for the script to wrap up fitting endings for both its villains and heroes. Lawrence completely abandons Jacob's lucid memory track, possibly because he's no longer an observer, but now an active participant. Still, Pattinson's uneven performance isn't up to the challenges created by Waltz's sadistic dynamism, and he often falls prey to reacting to situations rather than acting within them.
By the end of Water for Elephants, I found myself thinking back to the prophetic words Holbrook's older Jacob says in the opening scene: "I had a good life, a big life." For a while, Jacob's memory latches onto the vivid levels of size and affection interconnecting with a mesmerizing vision of the past. The depth to his hazy dreams goes deep. It's too bad Water for Elephants sells out, rendering its many magical acts moot in point and purpose.