Water for Elephants (Review)

Water for Elephants (Review)

May 13, 2011
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Water for Elephants
Genres:  Release Date: 12/05/2011 Runtime: 120 minutes

Love it or hate it, the Twilight series has been a massive success that turned its handsome star, Robert Pattinson, into an international pin-up idol overnight. Between instalments and capitalizing on the fever generated by the fanged franchise, here is his latest showcase: Water for Elephants, another tale of doomed love in a setting full of mythical creatures – this time the awe-inspiring beasts of a travelling carnival.

Pattinson plays Jacob (nothing to do with that Jacob), a veterinary student on the verge of graduation in the early years of the Great Depression. When his parents are killed in a well-timed accident that prevents him from taking his final exam, he is subsequently cast out onto the streets as a result of debts that his father supposedly left unpaid. His veterinary skills eventually win him a place in the fabled Benzini Brothers circus, which is run by the shrewd and merciless businessman August (Christoph Waltz, a major TV star in Germany who began his Hollywood career by landing an Oscar for his sinister performance in Inglourious Basterds).

Jacob’s relationship with August is deeply strained by the fact that he can’t take his eyes off August’s wife, the circus’ star performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon, caught in the middle again after How Do You Know). This is where Pattinson gets to fall back on his tried and true talent of the long, wistful look, as Marlena takes a step towards Jacob, then a step back, then he does the same, then August, who is a raging alcoholic, gets drunk and abusive and beats someone up – then the whole routine starts all over again.

Water for Elephants is unashamedly classical in its mode, look and structure. It builds a sense of wonder right from the beginning, with its old-man-with-a-story framing device – and it helps that the old man is played here by ageing veteran Hal Holbrook (Into the Wild). The setting reinforces the magical tone, with its menagerie of talented animals and reverence for a legendary form of entertainment. It’s this agreeably old-fashioned storytelling muscle that will draw many viewers in, especially if you’re fond of lavish old-school epics like Titanic or Seabiscuit. It’s no surprise that the screenplay, adapted from the novel by Sara Gruen, was written by Richard LaGravenese – it recalls the lush photography, melancholic score and lovelorn characters of films like The Horse Whisperer and The Bridges of Madison County.

Unfortunately, there isn’t really enough here to propel the story and hold your attention for two hours. It’s the novelty of the setting, and the spectacle it provides, that will keep you interested more than anything else. With music video director Francis Lawrence at the helm, Elephants is a technically accomplished piece of eye candy, and the intense climax provides a much-needed jolt. Waltz’s performance as the sadistic ringleader, the most complex character in the film, is also fascinating to watch, as the conflicted August swings back and forth between childlike vulnerability and unforgivable cruelty. It’s interesting to note that the filmmakers have come under fire for alleged mistreatment of its ivory-tusked star. Whether there is any truth to this or not, in the end the film will most likely be remembered for having the best performance by an elephant in a supporting role. Pass the peanuts.

Water for Elephants (Review), reviewed by Dan Gear on 2011-05-13T10:36:12+00:00 rating 2.5 out of 5
  • CM

    FYI, the FILMMAKERS have NOT  been underfire for mistreament. There is a 6 year old video of HTWT (the owner of Tai the elephant) in which their facility is shown and they use questionable methods. WFE has been supervised by the Animal Humane Society everyday during production and gave it “no animals were harmed” certification. If you want to write something like this in a review, please inform yourself first. I am asking you to edit your review because it spreads false information.

  • Anders

     @twitter-65832304:disqus Hi CM, I’m the editor here and I’d just like to say that Dan Gear, the author of this review, made it very clear that these were “alleged” claims of abuse. If you’ve been reading the news reports, that’s exactly what they are: allegations. Whether these turn out to be true or not — which Dan also points out could go either way — is a different story altogether.

    Ultimately, what’s written above is, at time of posting, correct.

     So while I will not alter the review, I have turned the sentence in question into a link that will direct readers to more information on the matter should they seek it.

    Anders Wotzke.

    • CM

      Oh, so who are the filmmakers to Mr. Dan Gear? Cause to me that means the director, the producer, the studio, etc. Am I wrong? Because if not, then Mr. Gear is spreading false information because these claims of abuse are made against Have Trunks Will Travel, a company employed for years in the film industry.

  • Becca

     Have sent this link to Fox, I’m sure they will be interested to learn you have implicated them in the mistreatment of Tai. Had you done a little more research you would have discovered that at no time has blame been apportioned to the filmmakers and that ADI have used a 6 year old video, filmed at HTWT,  that as distasteful as it may be, does not legally qualify as abuse.

  • Deb

    A) circus animals were/are not mythical;
    B) I doubt that the circus could really be described as a legendary form of entertainment, unless you’re referring to the stories of the weird and macabre of a circus era that far predates that of this tale and isn’t described; and
    C) allegations of abuse filmed SIX YEARS AGO are not being levelled against the filmmakers but, in fact, against the owners of the elephant, ‘Have Trunk Will Travel’. All the animals used in the film were monitored throughout filming by the American Humane Association

    I’m not going to even get into the sheer laziness of the all-too-familiar, pat, stock references to Pattinson’s Twilight role…tsk tsk tsk – bored now. Are reviewers even capable of original
    thought anymore?

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