Water for Elephants


Christoph Waltz raises a glass.  “To talent and illusion!” I can’t imagine a better toast to the movie itself as its full of both, not always to its benefit.  Water for Elephants, based on the (apparently) best-selling novel of the same name, is an old fashioned romance nestled softly in the curtain of the circus magic of 1931.  Surrounding a love story with the glitz, the glamor of the big top makes for a nice change of pace from the standard romance fare out today.  Its nice getting out of the coffee shops and into the circus.

The story is told in flashback by an older incarnation of our main character who has wandered into the grounds of a modern-day circus to escape his now empty life.  Jacob (Robert Pattinson) was a nice boy attending veterinary school raised by his Polish immigrant parents.  When his parents die in a car accident, Jacob is forced out of his school, out of his home and out of his life.  As he walks to Albany to find a job, he hops a train that changes his life.  This isn’t just any train.  Its the Benzini Bros. circus.  Soon, Jacob finds himself immersed in a world of performers, exotic animals, magic and illusion.

Before long, Jacob catches a glimpse of the circus’ star attraction, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).  This is where the film loses its balance.  Marlena should be a figure of pure light and magic, a visual addiction and somehow supernatural in both beauty and grace.  Reese Witherspoon just is not capable of it.  I know there are some out there that will disagree with me on this, but when it comes down to it, Reese just isn’t that girl.  She plays the part fine, but she just isn’t that girl.  She looks a bit like an innocent lost child riding around on the horse, without any of the magnetic confidence or magic that Marlena should have.  As the entire film hinges on we the audience buying that Marlena is the type of woman who’s enchanting beauty and grace is so powerful that men would leave their lives behind to follow her from town to town, it should have been cast with someone more capable.

Soon, Jacob is hired by Marlena’s husband August (Christoph Waltz) as the circuses new vet.  August is a complex man with some serious abandonment issues.  August tells Jacob that “the world is run on tricks, everyone plays,” and he lives up to that assessment throughout the film in devilish ways.  He will, at one moment, be your best friend, and the next will have you thrown from the moving train because he can’t afford to pay you or because you looked at Marlena the wrong way.  He is the very definition of obsessive compulsive and when he doesn’t get exactly what he wants, he gets angry and violent, whether it be with the circus acts or his wife.  Waltz brings the manic energy that won him an Oscar and although I don’t necessarily think he was the right guy for the job, he does it well.  He especially excels as the circus ringleader, bewitching the audience from center stage with a dangerous charm.

Marlena and Jacob find a common bond in their love for the animals, especially when an elephant named Rosie is added to the mix.  As August gets more and more violent with the elephant, Marlena and Jacob get closer and closer through their shared compassion.  Of course, a romance ensues and brings the angry wrath of August who becomes more and more of a loose cannon as the movie continues forward.  Eventually, Marlena is forced to make a choice that will have huge consequences for everyone under the big top.

Director Frances Lawrence delivers a genuine sense of magic to the film.  Lawrence, best known for I Am Legend, keeps the balance between fantasy and reality even in this fairy tale of the depression era.  The soft lights, the electricity flickering around the film is magnetic.  But ultimately it suffers from a long runtime and at the hands of the utter unbelievability of Reese.  The Score from James Newton Howard has some great moments with rich swells, sad swoons and darkness, but also a few missteps, including one out of place guitar piece that sounds like the opening music to Inception.

Water for Elephants is a movie with a lot going both for it and against it.  The sense of magical wonder is undeniable and Robert Pattinson proves that, if it weren’t for Twilight, he would be taken seriously as an actor.  But when you cut away all the frills, all the lights, the enchantment of that train moving through the night, you are left mildly unsatisfied with exactly what August promised in that toast.  “Talent and illusion,” not knowing if all of it was deception, or just the parts that didn’t work.

RATING:  6/10

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~ by Andrew Craig on May 2, 2011.

2 Responses to “Water for Elephants”

  1. Thanks for this one. I’ve been tossing the idea around of seeing it, but having read and liked the book very much I didn’t want to be annoyed by Robert Pattinson. I may do it anyway, as it sounds as if they got the visual aspects where they should be. I know, not enough… but sometimes eye candy is good too.

  2. I gotta admit, I really expected to hate it. A lot. But when all was said and done, I liked most of it which is a big accomplishment for anything that is aiming so far outside of my demographic. Good on them, right?

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