Water for Elephants

Movie review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
Water for Elephants Movie Poster Image
Popular with kids
The Notebook + the circus; some upsetting scenes.
  • PG-13
  • 2011
  • 120 minutes

Parents say

age 13+
Based on 12 reviews

Kids say

age 13+
Based on 22 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Some of the movie's positive messages include being kind to animals, empathetic to other human beings, and getting out of abusive relationships. The relationship message is particularly important, because it shows young women that no matter how much they think they "owe" their significant others, they should never stay in an unhealthy relationship.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Jacob is a positive role model. He's selfless and gentle and kind -- a complete contrast to August's cruelty and possessiveness. He shows compassion for the animals and for his fellow circus workers who don't have anyone looking out for them.


A circus boss is incredibly cruel and abusive to his wife, employees, and animals. In a couple of particularly upsetting scenes, August hurts an elephant so much that you see him and the elephant covered in blood. A man almost strangles his wife to death. Jacob is beaten badly -- with fists and kicks -- more than once. In one scene, Jacob comes close to killing August in his sleep with a knife. In another scene, a man is violently killed, and viewers see a close up of his face with blood dripping down his face. The practice of "redlighting" -- when the circus boss' heavies toss circus hands off a moving train, without caring whether they survive the fall or not -- is mentioned again and again. The number of workers redlighted is discussed several times; at one point, Jacob is nearly thrown off. Toward the end of the film, two characters are shown dead and bloody on the rocks, having failed to survive their redlighting. Brief scene of two dead people (the main character's parents) in a morgue.


Marlena and August embrace and kiss in front of other people. Jacob and Marlena flirt with each other, dance, and eventually make love, but the scene isn't explicit. In one scene, August forces Jacob and Marlena to dance with each other and stare into each other's eyes, as if to prove they have feelings for each other. Scenes of burlesque dancers stripping, though only bare backs are shown. A couple scenes of heavy flirting and verbal innuendo between a stripper and Jacob, as well as euphemistic references to him not being able to perform sexually due to drunkenness.


Language includes a couple of "s--t"s, plus "goddamned," "hell," "damn," "balls," "coochie girls," and "ass."

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Lots of alcohol consumption -- both by adults who drink to excess and by animals, who are given liquor to soothe their nerves and usher them to sleep. In one scene, the main characters get very drunk, stumbling and passing out; Jacob wakes up hungover and laughing, dressed as a clown. Adults are also shown smoking era-accurate cigars and cigarettes.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this romantic drama based on Sara Gruen's best-selling novel features some disturbing scenes of domestic abuse, animal cruelty, and other violence. The romance includes a few kisses and one love scene between stars Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon, but it's dimly lit and shows very little skin. Violence includes an animal being put down, another animal bloody and lethargic after a beating with a hook, a woman nearly being strangled to death, and the then-common practice of "redlighting" -- throwing circus workers off a moving train. Two "redlighted" characters are shown dead and sprawled among rocks, and the main character's dead parents are briefly shown in the morgue. With its mature themes and the central abusive relationship, this movie isn't always easy to watch, but it does encourage women to leave abusers before it's too late.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byJo Walker May 1, 2011

Sadistic rage-a-holic dominates Water for Elephants

While love triumphs in the end, this story is too savagely told for a young audience.

A scene where the vet is pinned to the ground by a circus-tough to keep... Continue reading
Adult Written bytinawlkr244 December 28, 2020

not enjoyable

I found very little to enjoy about this movie and did not bother to finish it. There was a lot of violence and cruelty and sexy content. Definitly not for kids
Teen, 15 years old Written byNeon_Fish July 7, 2015

So sad

It is an extremely emotional and moving movie which is very well Made. I think this movie is suitable for mature 15 year olds and up because I found some of the... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written byMoony718 April 9, 2016

Pattinson did a great job; movie was okay

The movie was okay. Robert Pattinson did a phenomenal job as the main character, but Reese Witherspoon didn't really seem to fit the part of Marlena...For... Continue reading

What's the story?

In this adaptation of Sara Gruen's popular historical novel, a 90-something man named Jacob Jakowski (Hal Holbrook) tells a contemporary circus manager (Paul Schneider) about the life-changing year he spent with the Benzini Brothers circus in 1931. After a tragedy ruins his ability to graduate from veterinary school, the desperate 23-year-old Jacob (Robert Pattinson) jumps a train that turns out to be a circus run by savvy but cruel August (Christoph Waltz), whose wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), is the circus' star attraction. Thrilled to have an educated man on board, August hires Jacob as the circus' personal vet and eventually asks him to train a newly acquired elephant, Rosie, for Marlena to ride as part of a new act. But life with the circus is often a disturbing, violent experience -- especially for a young man who's falling in love with his paranoid boss' beautiful wife.

Is it any good?

Director Francis Lawrence isn't exactly known for giving audiences warm fuzzies. His previous movies includes the demonic horror thriller Constantine and the post-apocalyptic thriller I Am Legend. With Gruen's best-selling book as his source material here, Lawrence concentrates on more domestic horrors missing in his other films. As the sadistic August, Waltz simmers with alternating charm and viciousness -- two qualities he perfected in his Oscar-winning turn in Inglourious Basterds. He rules the circus like a fierce despot who believes that his decisions are for the common good, and his performance is basically another variation of his Nazi officer (which is good because he's up to task but also disappointing, because he's such a fantastic actor, and it would be refreshing to see him play a gentler, kinder character).

But who cares about violent ringmasters when there's Pattinson to ogle? The truth is that audiences looking for a romance so steamy that it blows up the Big Top will be sadly disappointed. Sure, Witherspoon and Pattinson give each other plenty of longing gazes, but aside from their shared love of the circus animals, there's not all that much to their relationship. The flashback framing story prepares you for a Notebook or Titanic-sized love story, but Marlena and Jacob just seem thrown together by virtue of their being equally frightened by August. It's just not the sizzling affair you'd expect in such an old-fashioned love story. Holbrook, however, is completely deserving of audience admiration. His scenes are few, but the octogenarian Oscar nominee possesses a vulnerable gravitas that actors a third his age should study.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the movie's messages about relationships. What are the differences between the way August treats Marlena and the way Jacob treats her? Parents, talk to teens about your own values regarding relationships.

  • Which characters do you consider role models? Why?

  • How is the early 20th-century circus depicted? How are circuses different now?

Movie details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love romance

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