Fox // 2011 // 120 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Appellate Judge James A. Stewart (Retired) // November 9th, 2011
"I'm not running away. I'm coming home."
Making sure Robert Pattinson didn't crack his head while hopping a train wasn't the only hazard in casting the young idol in Water for Elephants. In one scene, director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) had to work around an actress who was nervous in Pattinson's presence. Pattinson doesn't play an age-old vampire here, but Water for Elephants does offer a hint of the fantastic in its colorful portrayal of Depression-era circus life.
Adapted from Sara Gruen's popular novel, an elderly man (Hal Holbrook, That Evening Sun), found on the circus grounds late at night, tells his story over a bottle...
In 1931, Jacob (Robert Pattinson, Twilight), a veterinary student at Cornell, leaves without his degree because of some bad news: his parents were killed in a car crash just before the final exam. Finding himself alone and broke during the Depression, Jacob hops a train, which turns out to be the Benzini Bros. circus train. Soon he finds himself pleading his case with circus owner August (Christoph Waltz, The Green Hornet) for a job. It looks like it'll be a short-term job, since the star horse Jacob is asked to care for has to be put down. But the failure of another circus gives Jacob and the Benzini Bros. a lucky break in the form of Rosie the elephant.
Naturally, there's more to it, in the form of a love triangle: Jacob's sweet on Marlena (Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line), who's both August's wife and the star performer. August takes out his wrath on poor Rosie, and could soon be turning his angry attention to Marlena and Jacob.
Water for Elephants excels at creating an enchanting fable atmosphere, the sort of visual experience that would make viewers want to run away and join the circus. The score by James Norton Howard has a mystical quality, especially when joined with the montage of Jacob's first tour of the circus grounds as the tents are being set up with motion that feels as choreographed as the circus performances. The atmosphere telegraphs a great deal. Even as Jacob shovels excrement or bops heads to deter gate crashers at the girlie show, you know he'll be putting his veterinary skills to use soon, just as you know Jacob and Marlena will lock lips the first time you see them together.
Surprisingly, there's some pretty bleak stuff underneath: the death of a horse, which gets fed to the wild cats; "redlighting," August's way of letting team members go (from a moving train); and the beating of poor Rosie. These elements of the novel aren't avoided, and I'm grateful for that, but they go by too fast to have the impact author Sara Gruen intended. Instead, the movie concentrates on the atmosphere and the love triangle.
Robert Pattinson's Jacob is convincing as the smart guy who surprises the rest of the circus by fitting in. Reese Witherspoon gives Marlena credibility by letting out just a little bit of emotion, showing her character as a trouper. Since Water for Elephants moves too fast at times, they don't get much time to sell the romance -- sneaking a kiss here and there or dancing in the lead train car while August is out cold drunk -- but they make the most out of every scene, making their growing love believable despite an overreliance on movie shorthand. Christoph Waltz adds just the right touch of jeopardy from the start, his August appearing perfectly genial but with a hint of nastiness; it's no surprise when he beats Rosie or menaces Marlena and Jacob.
Director Francis Lawrence and his team gave the movie a distinctive look, both mystical and colorful, relying mostly on sets and the Fox backlot to create an atmosphere that's authentic enough, but a bit more bright and cheery than real life. When he does use matte work to show the circus train on the move, with a lone headlight shining against the night sky, it almost looks like a storybook.
In the commentary track, director Lawrence and writer Richard LaGravenese do a good job of explaining both the creative decisions they made in their "condensed" version of the story and the work that went into the look of Water for Elephants.
The three featurettes -- on Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, and the way the book transfers to the screen -- are all short. The Witherspoon piece (which focuses on her circus training) and the book segment (which includes comments by author Gruen) both came across as clipped; I didn't see much actual information in Pattinson's profile. The theatrical trailer is one of the best I've seen of a recent film, capturing the tone without giving away too much.
You don't have to read Water for Elephants (like I did) to realize the film came from a thick, complex novel. There's a certain "We have to get as much as we can in somehow" sense that could give you the feeling that the filmmakers could have used another half-hour, at least, to do the job fully.
Water for Elephants isn't perfect, but it's a satisfying movie that somehow won't discourage anyone from running away to join the circus, even with its scenes of bad things happening to good people and good animals. If you haven't read Water for Elephants, it's likely to whet your appetite for the book.
Review content copyright © 2011 James A. Stewart; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13