Archived Reviews Water For Elephants Movie Review [6/10]

Water for Elephants Movie PosterWater for Elephants is an adaptation of a bestselling novel of the same name. I suspect that it's a much more enjoyable film if you've read the book. I haven't, so I found this production a little flat.

This is a pure romance centred around Jacob (Robert Pattinson) and Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). The story starts with Jacob as a senior, reminiscing about his circus life. We flash back to the young Jacob, who is a veterinary student. Just as he begins to write his final exam at Cornell, he is pulled away and informed that his parents have been killed in a car crash. Shortly thereafter he discovers that his parents have gone into considerable debt to fund his education, and that as a result he is now both unqualified and broke in the middle of the Great Depression.

It's irritating when you find the main premise of the story to be a disconnect. If this situation were to actually arise, one can't help but think that Jacob would have been given the bad news after he had finished his exam. I don't think it's good to start a story with some in the audience thinking that something is just not right. One can only hope this is a fault restricted to the film version. At a running time of just over two hours, it's clear that the scriptwriters struggled to pare down the novel to film length. It's possible that the improbable start is a result of the conversion.

Rather than do something rational, like write his final exam (which he eventually does), newly destitute Jacob hops a passing train that happens to be a travelling circus. He interviews with the tyrannical circus owner August (Christoph Waltz), and his veterinary skills secure him a job. Jacob's love of animals attracts him to Marlena, who is both the show's main attraction and August's treasured wife.

By now you may be wondering about the elephants. In an attempt to save the circus from bankruptcy, August acquires Rosie, a veteran circus elephant. August is a mercurial character with a disdain for all living things, and this evident in his treatment of Rosie. Jacob and Marlena's shared compassion for Rosie only serves to bring them together.

Overall, this is a pretty undemanding script. Only August's character has any significant depth, and although Waltz plays him well, he is somewhat typecast here. By far the film's best performance belongs to Rosie (Tai, trained by Gary Johnson), who is a shoe-in for Best Pachyderm in a Supporting Role at the next Academy Awards. Hal Holbrook does a great job of portraying the old Jacob. Meanwhile Witherspoon and Pattinson deliver performances on par with the script.

Visually this film does a very good job of conveying the feel of the 1930's, of the depression and the prohibition era. The scenes of the circus' arrival and the raising of the big tent are the best moments. Overall there is a great sense of hard economic times. From uneven train rails to a sense of grit just below the surface of the circus dazzle, the sets are impeccable. One would think that director Francis Lawrence could craft a more impressive visual feast from these raw materials, but his camera seems uninspired.

This film will appeal to fans of the book, fans of uncomplicated romance stories, and anyone over 60 with a lingering childhood dream of running away to the circus. If you don't fit into one of those groups, it doesn't really have much to offer.

Rating: 6/10

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