Water For Elephants is a compelling story of survival, redemption, and the incredible power of friendship. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Christoph Waltz and Amy Adams, the film won the Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival as well as the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. It is also the nominee for the 2015 Golden Globe, the BAFTA Award, and the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. While the movie’s message is undeniably moving, it is also important to recognize why Water For Elephants resonates with audiences.
An Amazing Friendship
At its core, Water For Elephants is a story about a friendship that spans decades, across continents, and under the most trying of circumstances. The film begins in 1947, as George Adams (Waltz), an American hunter, and his Indian friend Shekhar (Ramesh John) walk towards the rising sun. As they walk, they reminisce about past adventures together and the good times they had with the beautiful elephant, Tokolowo (Aung San Suu Kyi), whom they had saved from a poacher. Back in their home in Connecticut, Adams recalls how the two of them had bonded during their years in Africa and how they had risked their lives to protect each other. After a falling out caused by Adams’ overconfidence and jealousy, Shekhar had to leave Africa but had promised to return to visit his friend and companion. Twenty years later, Shekhar does return to Connecticut and brings with him two of Tokolowo’s orphaned infant sons – Arjun (Rishi Kaushal) and Sunny (Jackson Rathbone). The friends immediately rekindle their bond and become the pillars of support for the boys as they grow up and face life’s challenges. Over the years, the boys’ parents – played by Tony Shalhoub and Alfre Woodard – struggle with their own personal demons as well as the prejudices of society and so, too, do the boys. All the while, the foursome remain inseparable.
It is interesting to note that Water For Elephants’ opening gambit, depicting a friendship between men of different races and classes, is both a critique of and a comment on the historical context in which it was made. In a 2009 Interview, co-writer Eric Roth – who also had a hand in the screenplay – stated that he had wanted to explore ‘‘the universality of friendship’’ and offer a ‘‘cathartic experience’’ in the process of looking at the effects of colonialism on modern-day India. The film’s depiction of an Indian village where people are not only content to be dominated by a white man, but also look down on and discriminate against the friendship between an Indian man and a white man is a sharp indictment of contemporary society and its attitudes towards race and friendship. While the film’s final shot, showing the inseparable bond between the four main characters, is both a celebration of and a eulogy for their friendship, it was in fact, the director’s cut that won the hearts of audiences and critics alike at Cannes 2014.
A Powerful Message
Along with being an amazing piece of beautifully animated narrative, Water For Elephants is also a biting critique of the ivory trade, the commodification of nature, and the devastating effects of colonial mentality. It is an extremely potent and timely film and one that will be appreciated and studied by audiences around the world.
In 2014, the illegal trade of ivory had reached a record-breaking level and was responsible for the slaughter of some 35,000 elephants. It is a sad fact that, due to demand from Asian markets such as China and Japan, tusk will likely be worth more in the years to come, putting further pressure on Africa’s iconic species. One of the film’s co-writers, Kirsten “Chase” Richardson, described the horrific situation in an Interview as being like ‘‘watching the grasshoppers in Michael Mann’s epic, The Dark Knight.’’ As Chase noted, ‘‘There is a very clear parallel between the grasshoppers in Dark Knight and the elephants in Water For Elephants. The former migrate at night while the latter roam by day; the former are driven by a sense of competition and the need to eat, the latter by friendship and curiosity.’’ The analogy is both fitting and ominous. While it is impossible to know exactly what impact Water For Elephants will have on audiences, it is certain that the film will provoke discussion and challenge prejudices. Indeed, it may even help to turn some people – or at least some elephants – green.