Director Francis Lawrence’s latest release, Water for Elephants, views much like a circus performance: a pleasure to watch despite its inherently flawed execution.
The camera opens on the creepy atmosphere of a circus tent after hours. A befuddled (possibly senile) old man waits in the rain, diligently asking if the spectacle is over. A young but jaded circus employee takes the man into his office. In an attempt to distract the worker from returning him to his retirement home, the elderly gentleman embarks on a detailed story about his youth as a circus veterinarian.
Enter Robert Pattinson as small-town boy Jacob Jankowski — one of his first blockbuster leading roles since Twilight. In Water For Elephants, Pattinson looks a lot less pale but just as stiff. Jacob’s life, as the child of Polish immigrants during the Great Depression, is a surprisingly comfortable one, until tragedy hits and he is forced to leave Cornell’s veterinary school, and (because this is only the logical thing to do) subsequently wanders aimlessly in the wilderness before he hops a train. He inadvertently ends up in one of the many boxcars of the Benzini Brothers traveling circus.
Jacob eventually lands himself a job working for the somewhat sadistic but charming circus-owner, August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz of Inglourious Basterds), as the official veterinarian for mistreated circus animals.
He eventually falls in love with August’s pixie-like and tragically young wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). Their bond strengthens when the two must work together to train the circus’ newly acquired star act, an Asian elephant named Rosie.
Of course, there comes a scene of circus mayhem. While this seems only fitting for such a story, the sequence of fairly outlandish events falls slightly short due to the brevity of the film.
None of the events are quite as outlandish however, as the relationship between Jacob and Marlena. Witherspoon carries her role in the standard Witherspoon way — that is, feisty and somewhat detached. For some of the time, Pattinson plays his role of the shy but roughish youth well, portraying negative emotions with his classic look of nausea we saw so often in Twilight. Most times, however, he simply interacts stoically with his co-star. The Pattinson way is consistently inconsistent.
The lack of chemistry between the two love interests was disconcerting and created a detachment not only between the couple but between the story and the viewers themselves. Without an almost palpable and dynamic relationship between the actors, I couldn’t help but take a step back from the tale and wonder why the characters were taking the risks they did.
This however, is a common ailment among movies that were originally books, like this one. This film follows essentially the same plot line as Sara Gruen’s novel, but Gruen allots enough time for each event, character development and relationship in order for them to fully develop, to become natural and believable. Consequently, some of the profundity of the story’s events is lost in this adaptation.
Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, however, manages to capture the nostalgic tone of the novel perfectly. The look of Water for Elephants is bright and colorful with the muted tones of an old Polaroid.
The film is full of still-worthy images of the circus and artful silhouettes. When paired with gorgeous costuming and Witherspoon’s to-die-for outfits (which may not be financially correct for the income of a circus owner’s wife, but who cares?), this movie is a delight to watch. Just like in a circus, who really cares if the magician’s tricks are real when his assistant is clad in glitter and feathers? All in all, a fantastic story line and a whole bunch of pretty colors make Water for Elephants seem like a palatable flick.
However, the essence of the film is tinged with a sad irony; much of the movie pertains to Jacob and Marlena establishing a humane and loving relationship with Rosie, yet the creation of the movie contradicts any efforts the novel made against animal mistreatment.
As Animal Defenders International’s recently released video depicting the methods used to train elephants owned by the same company as Rosie (real name: Tai), large animals used in film are trained to perform and act through negative reinforcement — abuse — despite what the credits at the end may say.
This proves a horrifyingly hypocritical factor of the film, and while it’s no surprise that Hollywood producers don’t give a damn, it’s unsettling that Gruen allowed it.
Granted, Water for Elephants is shiny and fun, but save yourself the ten dollars and see something with a little more punch and a lot more humanity.
Wow, thanks for bringing up the question of humane treatment of elephants in film- I was excited to see this movie, but realizing that the message in the book is totally contradicted by the use of real elephants in the movie made me lose my appetite for that. Thanks for the warning!
yeah, I can’t believe they used a real elephant in the movie, considering the theme of animal treatment in the book… so lame. cool review
Ew, they used real elephants in the movie? Awful. Almost as awful as making that poor vampire try to act like a human being for like two hours.
Wild animals like Tai shouldn’t be forced to perform confusing, unnatural tricks for film or any other entertainment. That poor baby would much rather be free to be an elephant, no matter how the studio tries to portray the situation. Need proof of elephant abuse? http://www.youtube.com/verify_age?next_url=http%3A//www.youtube.com/watch%3Fv%3Dcw7W1AJAL2c
You covered both of the film’s leads, but I am left wondering about the other performances in the film, specifically that of Christopher Waltz, who is an amazingly gifted actor. (He was the BEST thing about Inglorious Basterds) I wish you would have analysed his work as well as his character’s significance. My guess since I haven’t seen the film is that he is the best thing about it! Love that you advocate for pachyderms in your review, a nice spin. Please get back to this reader with your opinion of Mr. Waltz’ performance. All in all, a well written… Read more »
loved the movie. it was a lot better then what i thought it was going to be. i read the book. rob and christoph played their character just like in the book. as for the video it was from 2005, and while on set the studio followed the laws and didn’t abuse the animals. this was the company who owns the elephants not the movie studio.
forgot to add something about your review. the video was taken in 2005. fox and the producers had the humane society on set. the animals weren’t abused while they were on set. what happened took place 6 years ago, and has nothing to do with the movie. i hope that you penalize zookeeper which is coming out, because they used the same animals.