Water for Elephants

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Not recommended under 13, PG to 15 (Themes; Violence; Disturbing scenes)

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This topic contains:

  • overall comments and recommendations
  • details of classification and consumer advice lines for Water for Elephants
  • a review of Water for Elephants completed by the Australian Council on Children and the Media (ACCM) on 17 May 2011.

Overall comments and recommendations

Children under 13 Not recommended due to themes, violence and disturbing scenes
Children 13-14 Parental guidance recommended due to themes, violence and disturbing scenes
Children 15 and over OK for this age group

About the movie

This section contains details about the movie, including its classification by the Australian Government Classification Board and the associated consumer advice lines. Other classification advice (OC) is provided where the Australian film classification is not available.

Name of movie: Water for Elephants
Classification: M
Consumer advice lines: Mature themes and violence
Length: 120 minutes

ACCM review

This review of the movie contains the following information:

A synopsis of the story

Water for Elephants is set in the depression era of the 1930’s. Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) is on the point of graduating as a veterinarian when his parents are killed in a car accident and he finds himself homeless. After aimlessly jumping on a passing train, Jacob enters the world of a travelling circus, complete with misfits, drifters and oddballs struggling to survive in the hard economic times.

August (Christopher Waltz), the owner of the circus, only allows Jacob to stay because he believes that he is a vet and can look after the circus animals. August is a flamboyant but cruel and controlling man married to the beautiful Marlene (Reece Witherspoon), star of the equestrian act.

Jacob is a compassionate and humane person who looks after the animals with great care and manages to tame Rosie the elephant, a seemingly impossible task. He finds himself in trouble when he and Marlene fall in love.


Children and adolescents may react adversely at different ages to themes of crime, suicide, drug and alcohol dependence, death, serious illness, family breakdown, death or separation from a parent, animal distress or cruelty to animals, children as victims, natural disasters and racism. Occasionally reviews may also signal themes that some parents may simply wish to know about.

Cruelty to animals; alcohol abuse; abusive relationships

Use of violenceinfo

Research shows that children are at risk of learning that violence is an acceptable means of conflict resolution when violence is glamourised, performed by an attractive hero, successful, has few real life consequences, is set in a comic context and / or is mostly perpetrated by male characters with female victims, or by one race against another.

Repeated exposure to violent content can reinforce the message that violence is an acceptable means of conflict resolution. Repeated exposure also increases the risks that children will become desensitised to the use of violence in real life or develop an exaggerated view about the prevalence and likelihood of violence in their own world.

There is some violence in this movie including:

  • There are several fight scenes which show people bloody and bruised.
  • Jacob is attacked and beaten on several occasions by other men, including August.
  • August repeatedly hits Rosie the elephant with a bull hook which causes lacerations and bleeding.
  • After Rosie causes a stampede, August is infuriated and goes into her cage and savagely beats her – nothing actually seen but it is heard. When Jacob tries to intervene, men grab him and beat him up.
  • August attacks Marlene and this appears to be a regular occurrence.
  • Jacob finds blood in the carriage where his friends should be and discovers they’ve been ‘redlighted’ – thrown off the train onto rocks and killed.
  • Jacob almost kills August with a knife but can’t do it.
  • Marlene hits August with the bullwhip to stop him killing Jacob. August then almost chokes Marlene to death but Rosie kicks and kills him.

Material that may scare or disturb children

Under fiveinfo

Children under five are most likely to be frightened by scary visual images, such as monsters, physical transformations.

In addition to the above mentioned violent scenes, there are some scenes in this movie that could scare or disturb children aged under five, including the following:

  • Jacob’s parents are shown dead in the morgue.
  • August prods Rosie once too often and she rears up and stampedes onto the audience.
  • Jacob has to shoot an injured horse

Aged five to eightinfo

Children aged five to eight will also be frightened by scary visual images and will also be disturbed by depictions of the death of a parent, a child abandoned or separated from parents, children or animals being hurt or threatened and / or natural disasters.

Children in this age group are also likely to be disturbed by some of the above mentioned scenes

Aged eight to thirteeninfo

Children aged eight to thirteen are most likely to be frightened by realistic threats and dangers, violence or threat of violence and / or stories in which children are hurt or threatened.

Children in this age group may also be disturbed by some of the above mentioned scenes

Thirteen and overinfo

Children over the age of thirteen are most likely to be frightened by realistic physical harm or threats, molestation or sexual assault and / or threats from aliens or the occult.

Younger children in this age group may also be disturbed by some of the above mentioned scenes

Product placement

None of concern

Sexual references

There are some sexual references in this movie, including:

  • reference to Jacob not being able to perform sexually as he’s had too much to drink.

Nudity and sexual activity

There is some nudity and sexual activity in this movie, including:

  • A striptease act is shown from behind.
  • A man is shown reading a girlie magazine and nude pictures are briefly shown.
  • Marlene and August kiss and embrace in front of Jacob.
  • Marlene and Jacob go to a hotel room to make love. We see them kissing and undressing.
  • August makes Marlene and Jacob dance together, stare into each others’ eyes and touch each other.

Use of substances

There is some use of substances in this movie, including:

  • frequent use and abuse of alcohol.
  • alcohol is also given to the animals at times – sometimes for recreation, sometimes to ease pain.
  • smoking of cigars and cigarettes is common.

Coarse language

There is some coarse language in this movie, including:

  • shit
  • bastard
  • goddamn

In a nutshell

Water for Elephants is a romantic drama that captures an era of very different lives and standards. The themes and harsh realities depicted make the film more suitable for adults and older adolescents.

The main messages from this movie are that:

  • women do not have to stay in an abusive relationship
  • animals should be treated humanely

 Parents may also wish to discuss the real life consequences of

  • aggression and cruelty
  • drinking excessively and losing control of your behaviour