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According to the ringmaster of the Benzini Brothers Traveling Circus, “a circus survives on blood, sweat, pain and [excrement].”  In “Water for Elephants” we experience all of these, along with romance, danger, laughter and even a little bit of poetry.  This ambitious, colorful story of the travels of a second rate depression era circus is filled with metaphors about life and love—some more successful than others—but it is consistently engaging and a treat for the eyes.

Jacob Jankowski (“Twilight” idol Robert Pattinson) is a young veterinary student on the verge of graduating from Cornell when his world is suddenly turned upside down.  Jacob was never wildly enthusiastic about his plans to join his father’s small town veterinary practice but when his parents are killed in a car crash and all of their material possessions are seized by the bank, Jacob ends up with no money, no job, no food, and no place to live, so he sets off on foot down the road.

Tired of walking one night, he abandons his suitcase containing his last few possessions from his old life and jumps a passing freight train.   What seems like an anonymous gray train in the dark turns out to be a tumble through the looking glass.  As Jacob makes his way through the length of the train, we encounter the different surrealistic worlds of the circus.  There is the noisy clown car with its jostling, slap-happy world, the car carrying all the coochie dancers reaches out to him like the sirens reached out to Odysseus (As he makes his way through their car, one of them envelops him in her arms, cooing “I saw you during my act.  Want a ride?”).  The roustabouts live a grim, desperate life in sparse cars with none of the glamor and glitter of the other cars. Before Jacob joins the roustabouts, one grizzled old timer warns him, “If you have any kind of life to go back to, that’s what you should do.” At the end of the journey is the jewel in the crown, the luxurious train car reserved for ringmaster August Rosenblum (Christoph Waltz of “Inglourious Basterds) and his beautiful wife (and star attraction) Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).

The Benzini Brothers circus is always on the verge of bankruptcy and as they make their way from town to town they encounter the remains of other small circuses who have died by the side of the road, and whose carcasses are being scavenged for props and talents by the survivors. From one of these failed circuses August purchases a beautiful speckled elephant named Rosie.  He acknowledges he won’t be able to pay the men for two weeks but he hopes that Rosie will bring in enough “rubes” so that the circus will be able to survive a while longer.

The care, feeding and training of Rosie becomes a battle of wills between the cruel, pragmatic August and the idealistic, empathetic Jacob.  The battle expands to include a struggle for the affections of the beautiful Marlena and the treatment of the roustabouts, climaxing in “The Great Circus Disaster of 1931.”

This film has some visually gorgeous moments, such as the scene with Jacob and August sitting on top of the moving train under the starlit sky talking about life as the beautiful countryside winds by, or the scene with the beautiful and petite Marlena tending to the immense Rosie by lantern light.  Like the circus itself, these moments illuminate the poetic grace around us.

Parents should know that this film has some strong language, alcohol, smoking, a sad parental death, some violence with characters injured and killed, animal abuse, sexual references and non-explicit situations including adultery.

Family discussion: Jacob thought he knew where he was going and then very quickly had to change his course.  What is the best way to make sure you have a back-up plan?  Did Jacob and Marlena do the right thing?

If you like this, try: “Big Fish”

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