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Eleanor Ringel Cater

When it comes to elephants in movies — ‘Water for Elephants’ — an old-fashioned romance

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

I don’t know why, but something in my slip-slidey mind refuses to register WATER FOR ELEPHANTS as the title of the new movie based on Sara Gruen’s bestseller. Instead, it keeps mumbling LIKE WATER FOR ELEPHANTS which is a throwback to the smashing foood/sex/magic realism Mexican movie, LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, made in 1992.

So, to set up my version of a firewall in my head, I keep saying elephants, elephants, elephants, over and over to myself.

The next thing I knew, I was singing to myself (badly, “I done seen about everything now that I’ve seen an elephant fly.”

That’s not in WATER FOR ELEPHANTS either. That’s one of the wonderful songs from, hands-down, the best elephant picture ever made: DUMBO.

An animated feature from the Disney Machine circa 1941, which was then enjoying its first golden age with pictures like “Dumbo,” “Bambi,” “Pinocchio” and “Fantasia” “Dumbo,” which just barely qualifies as a feature, has flying elephants, big-eared baby elephants, gossipy elephants, mother-love at is most affecting (BABY MINE) and a mind-bending hiccupy vision of Pink Elephants on Parade, when little big-eared Dumbo over-indulges on the champagne. It’s pure elephant insanity with Walt’s famous Nine Old Men (his animation team) twisting and turning elephants into just about anything you can imagine…and more.

And then the DANCE OF THE HOURS segment in FANTASIA, which is mostly dominated by hippos in tutus, but does have its share of fanciful and overly-enthusiastic pachyderms joining the act.

Then there are the other three-ring movies. Say…WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, which is set in a Depression-era circus. Mostly I think of the multi-ton foot suspended over Gloria Graham’s face at the behest of her sadistic boyfriend in THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH .( the elephant isn’t malevolent; its trainer, is) But there’s also “JUMBO” also known as BILLY ROSE’S JUMBO…as in Billy Rose, second hubby of Fanny Brice. And, the darn thing is written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur..as in THE FRONT PAGE????

Doris Day co-stars with Jimmy Durante who owns the struggling Wonder Circus and plays Mother Hen to their main attraction, an elephant named — you got it — Jumbo.

ELEPHANT WALK is probably more famous for its humans than its pachyderms…and you may have seen it a lot recently on TCM because Elizabeth Taylor was hired to replace Vivien Leigh who was having her 16th nervous breakdown.

The most disturbing elephant movie I know of: : a short documentary shot by Thomas Edison in 1903 called ELECTRICUTING AN ELEPHANT. Said animal, Topsy, was living in the Luna Park part of Coney Island when she killed three men. Hence the public execution (horrible to watch….I don’t recommend it) Anyway, when Luna Park burned down some years later, those in the know called it Topsy’s Revenge.

As for WATER FOR ELEPHANTS…. there’s the ages-old question of book-vs.-movie.

I hadn’t read the book and enjoyed the movie as an old-fashioned romance done with loving period detail.

I don’t think hte romance between Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson works as well as it might, mostly because they are at different points in their careers. She’s a female over 30 who’s finding that an Oscar and talent (and she IS very talented) can still translate poorly in youth-obsessed Hollywood and he’s at the very crest of his fame, thanks to the “Twilight” series.

Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.


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