Water for Elephants

"Violence and Desire under the Big Top"



WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is a romantic drama about a young veterinarian in American who falls in love with the beautiful, emotionally abused younger wife of a controlling German circus owner with a violent temper. WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is beautifully produced and compelling, with excellent performances and some moral elements, but it’s marred by foul language, brief lewd content, an alcohol abuse subplot, and some adulterous themes about desiring another man’s wife, although the husband is clearly a mean but sometimes charming and friendly villain.


WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is a beautifully produced, compelling romantic drama with excellent performances. Regrettably, the worldview is mixed because the movie’s central romance is between a young man and a beautiful woman who’s married to an evil but charming and conflicted man with a terrible temper.

Robert Pattinson stars as Jacob, and Hal Holbrook plays Jacob as an old man, who tells his life story one night to the manager of Circus Vargas. Jacob suffers a terrible tragedy in 1931 when his beloved Polish parents are killed in an automobile accident, just as Jacob’s about to take his final exam as a veterinary student at Cornell University. Jacob discovers that his father had taken out a big loan to pay for his schooling, leaving Jacob completely broke.

Jacob leaves Cornell and hops a train for the big city. The train turns out to be run by the Benzini Circus, now owned by a hard-nosed but charismatic German immigrant named August (played by Christoph Waltz), who also serves as the circus ringmaster. August is married to the beautiful Marlene, an orphaned American woman played by Reese Witherspoon. Marlene is the star attraction, riding a beautiful white horse leading other trained horses.

Jacob is immediately attracted to Marlene, but makes an effort to stay away when he learns she’s married to August. August gives Jacob a job as a vet for the circus, even when Jacob decides to put down Marlene’s white horse, that’s in terrible pain from a terminal hoof disease. Then, August buys an elephant named Rosie for a new act for Marlene, to replace her old act with the horses. But, August abuses Rosie while trying to get Jacob to use a circus hook that bites into the elephant’s skin.

Against his better judgment, Jacob stays on with the circus, even though he realizes August has a terrible temper. And, even though he knows August is not above throwing freeloaders and aging or incompetent circus roustabouts off the circus train while it’s going at full speed.

Rosie almost causes Marlene a terrible injury during their first performance under the big top. August goes crazy and beats Rosie with the circus hook, injuring her badly. Jacob decides he must stay with the circus to protect both Rosie and Marlene from August’s violent temper.

The longer Jacob stays, however, the closer he and Marlene become. Eventually, of course, August realizes this growing attraction. Can Jacob and Marlene survive this madman’s jealous, violent rage when it finally breaks free?

Based on a popular novel, WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is entertaining and suspenseful. Though it may be classified as a “woman’s picture,” or “chick flick” to use a more derogatory term that’s unfair, the movie has enough going on to keep both men and women interested. Also, the whole cast does a marvelous job, including veteran Hal Holbrook, who gives the opening and closing scenes a lot of heart and strong positive vibes.

Although the ending gives a firm support to the notions of family, marriage and having children, the rest of WATER FOR ELEPHANTS has some Romantic themes supporting adultery. Also, however, there are some moral elements supporting Jacob’s good intentions of wanting to protect people and animals from August’s violent rage. Thus, overall, this is a conflicted movie with both good and bad content. This leads to a strong, mixed pagan worldview. The movie also has some lewd moments and foul language that violate the biblical standards MOVIEGUIDE® follows. All in all, therefore, MOVIEGUIDE® advises extreme caution for WATER FOR ELEPHANTS.


(PaPa, Ro, B, P, C, LL, VV, SS, NN, AA, D, MM) Strong mixed pagan worldview with Romantic elements involving adultery with the beautiful wife of a mean man with a terrible temper who is a murderer and some moral elements supporting stopping said villain and, eventually, having a positive family life with the woman, including a couple positive references to God, plus some positive Pro-American, patriotic content and some Christian themes of forgiveness and repentance; 13 obscenities and two GD profanities, plus man gets sick and vomits; some strong intense violence and light violence includes threats, implied beating of elephant, man stabs elephant with a hook to move it that causes some minor bleeding, woman falls off elephant when it runs off, man has to shoot dying horse but not shown, thugs beat up protagonist, attempted strangulation of woman, police raid speakeasy, circus animals let loose, lion and tiger attack as circus audience flees, and circus owner is known for tossing unwanted people off his circus train when the train’s traveling at full speed; strong sexual immorality but not graphically depicted includes adulterous kissing and man runs off with another man’s wife to protect her after the husband decides to beat him up or kill him and it’s implied they fornicate, plus men watch striptease act at travelling circus and some lewd comments; two striptease women in skimpy outfits that barely cover their breasts; alcohol use, drunkenness and elderly man working as a circus roustabout is an alcoholic who drinks bad whiskey and eventually suffers for it; smoking; and, lying, animal abuse, man has violent temper, jealousy, exaggeration, tattoos, and seedy circus values.

In Brief:

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is a beautifully produced, compelling romantic drama with, however, conflicted content. Based on a popular novel, the movie tells in flashback what happened to an old man named Jacob in a pivotal year, 1931, when his parents suddenly died in a car accident. Before getting to his final exam, Jacob learns his father took out a big loan to pay Jacob’s way in veterinary school. Eventually, Jacob finds himself as the vet for a circus owned by a German immigrant with a violent temper. Complications ensue when Jacob falls in love with the man’s beautiful, emotionally abused younger wife.

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is entertaining and suspenseful, with excellent acting. Although the ending extols family, marriage and having children, the rest of WATER FOR ELEPHANTS has Romantic themes supporting adultery. There are, however, some moral elements concerning Jacob’s good intentions of wanting to protect people and animals from the circus owner’s violent wrath. Thus, overall, this is a conflicted movie with both good and bad. This leads to a mixed pagan worldview. The movie also has some lewd moments and foul language. MOVIEGUIDE® advises extreme caution regarding WATER FOR ELEPHANTS.

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