Although Water for Elephants is based off the book bearing the same title, it really should have been titled Cheap-Ass Whiskey for Elephants. Simply because the 4 ton supporting actress slams at least 8 bottles of grandpa’s old cough syrup during the 122 minute presentation, and we’re not talking about Jersey Shores’ Snooki.
So this feature marks Robert Pattinson’s second major appearance outside of the Twilight series that put him on the radar. The jury is still out on whether this guy has the chops to forge a career as a leading man. Knowing this, director Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend) wisely casts an outstanding veteran to help guide our young lead through this abbreviated drama.
Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is about to take his final exam at Cornell University. Once he aces it, he already has his life mapped out. The girl is selected; the career – veterinarian – is awaiting him, and he’s ready to make the most of life while America has fallen into a time period we know as the Great Depression. Jacob is literally just hours away from achieving all these aspirations when tragedy strikes his parents. Left with zilch, he begins walking aimlessly down the railroad tracks around New York state. While sulking, he sees a train go by and decides to stop the tireless walking and sneak aboard. Plan works out fine until he meets the patrons of the locomotive.
He crosses path with the Benzini Brothers traveling circus show. Led by August (Christoph Waltz), Jacob strikes a deal that impresses the shrewd overlord, and he finds himself being taken under his wing. While attending to his duties as the first ever circus vet, he notices the show’s star attraction in Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). It’s no secret he takes a liking to the starlet, but she just happens to be married to August. And Jacob begins to learn from his fellow workers that the boss can be gracious and equally ruthless. When August decides to introduce an elephant as the production’s new centerpiece, Jacob forms a bond with the gentle giant. From there, the show begins to take off and the entire company has a good vibe flowing. Meanwhile, Jacob begins to question August’s actions toward Marlena and the elephant, which then has August keeping a watchful eye on his young prodigy.
Unfortunately, this story is as predictable as a Rafael Nadal tennis match on clay. Everyone in the room knows that Jacob and Marlena are going to have a moment. They also know that August is suspicious and could possibly turn on his new favorite employee. These angles are revealed in this review because this novel was published in 2006. Knowing that, one would have hoped that author Sara Gruen would deviate from a pattern seen in so many dramas, that tackle the coming-of-age/mentor takes a guy under his wing storyline. It’s just too obvious.
With that said, the performance of Waltz is the attraction that will keep the viewer interested. The guy can transition as well as anyone in the business when factoring in a wide-range of emotions. And he does it numerous times in the same scene to boot. Coming in second in the top performance category is the elephant. This isn’t to completely knock Pattinson’s or Witherspoon’s performance here, but the elephant had more charisma than both of them. Some of that might have to do with the scripting, but the only time this flick tugs on the heart strings is when the elephant plot point is in the forefront.
Now even though this review may lead you to suspect that yours truly wasn’t entirely enamored with this tale, that is not the case. Despite the predictability, the depicted behind-the-scenes circus lifestyle during that time period was fairly interesting. And the brief Narnia-esque battle at the tail end of the climax was well done. In fact, all the cinematography will rope the viewer right into each sequence. Whether it’s the tight-quartered living conditions of the train, or the roaming around on grounds of the big top, the environment is detailed and enjoyable to explore. And you will receive a decent dose of unique characters to help fill in the “pages” so to speak.
Overall, Water for Elephants as a film, will urge one to give the novel a read. You can feel how this could be a page-turner even though the material doesn’t fully translate well to the screen. However, the style and delivery fits well with the time period on display, leading the atmosphere and tone of the performers to keep the audience engaged all the way through.
RATING 4 out of 5