There’s a great love story in the new movie WATER FOR ELEPHANTS and it’s not between Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon. The one I’m referring to is between the audience and Rosie the elephant. She’s a big character, literally and figuratively, in this epic melodrama set against the backdrop of a depression era circus. And she steals the film right out from under the noses of her young co-stars.
Tai the elephant plays Rosie and she’s been a movie star for a few decades now. Tai’s been in everything from THE JUNGLE BOOK (1994) to OPERATION DUMBO DROP (1995) to last year’s EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP. (She was the pink elephant in the room, for those who saw it.) As the animal act brought in to save the dying circus in this adaptation of Sara Gruen’s bestselling novel from 2006, Tai gives one of the greatest animal performances ever captured on film. Her Rosie becomes not only the centerpiece of the story but the emotional core as well.
Rosie is an ugly, old and supposedly not very smart elephant who is bought to turn around the fortunes of the Benzini Brothers circus. So hopes August, the owner and ringmaster, played as a complex villain with a hair trigger temper by the estimable Christoph Waltz. He believes that Rosie needs to be dominated to perform her tricks on cue, and thus beats her to bend her to his show’s will. These scenes are very hard to watch, even though there’s no real abuse going on, as the Humane Society was present throughout the shoot. They are so wrenching because of the work done by Tai and her marvelous trainer Gary Johnson. Tai as Rosie gives an adroit and moving performance in these scenes, and throughout the rest of the movie. And the director Francis Lawrence deftly captures the elephant, not in cloying close-ups but in long shots that show the animal’s size and full-bodied performance.
There is likely some CGI work blended into Tai’s performance, but I doubt it was the scenes where Rosie tugs affectionately at Pattinson with her trunk. Or where she steals a drink of pink lemonade. Or where she raises a leg or nuzzles Witherspoon or follows Pattinson as he dutifully carts around her buckets of booze. (Rosie fancies the hard stuff over water.) Rosie turns out to be anything but a dumb elephant. And Tai makes Rosie compelling throughout with her intelligent and delighting performance. She’s so good frankly, it’s hard to watch anyone else on screen with her. Even just standing there, Tai makes the character of Rosie riveting.
As I thought about it, I had to go back to MY DOG SKIP (2000) to remember a movie with a central animal performance that moved me so. In many ways, both that film and WATER FOR ELEPHANTS are old-fashioned in their filmmaking, akin to something like the LASSIE series or NATIONAL VELVET (1944) or OLD YELLER (1957). They invest a great deal of emotion into the story, skirting close to maudlin, but negotiating just shy of it because the animal performers are so deft and nuanced. Those films contained extraordinary animal performances as well, every bit the equal of their human co-stars. In the case of WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, Tai is so good as Rosie you feel more emotionally invested in her than in Robert Pattinson. (Sorry, TWILIGHT fans, but here too Pattinson is quite remote. It may be that he’s simply not that expressive of an actor.)
There is much to recommend WATER FOR ELEPHANTS. The performances are all quite good except for Pattinson’s okay one. It has gorgeous production values on display in everything from the elaborate 10-car train to its cheeky circus costumes to the exquisite hair and make-up (Witherspoon’s Jean Harlow-esque blonde look is breathtaking.) And it is sure to be remembered in many technical categories come Oscar time next year. Wouldn’t it be delightful if the Academy saw fit to somehow award Tai and her trainer Gary Johnson with a special award as well? I’ll drink a bucket of booze to that!