Water for elephants? Judge Clark Douglas finds this an unfair trade.
Our review of Water For Elephants, published November 9th, 2011, is also available.
Life is the most spectacular show on earth.
"You do right by me, I'll show you a life most suckers can't even dream of."
Facts of the Case
After Jacob (Robert Pattinson, Twilight) loses both of his parents, he decides he needs a fresh start. Impulsively, he jumps aboard a train and lands a job shoveling manure for a circus. During his time there, Jacob meets the sadistic ringmaster August (Christoph Waltz, The Green Hornet) and his lovely, quiet wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line). When August discovers that Jacob has a knack for working with animals, the young man is promoted to circus veterinarian. However, Jacob soon finds himself clashing with August on a variety of issues both professional and personal.
I think Water for Elephants works, though it took me a while to come to that conclusion. This is a film in which every element works beautifully except for the story at its center. Admittedly, most circus tents come crashing down without a pole to hold them up, but the tale of forbidden love that consumes so much of the film's attention somehow seems secondary to the many pleasures the film scatters around the edges. Like director Francis Lawrence's two previous outings (Constantine and I Am Legend), it adds up to less than the sum of its parts, but those parts are compelling enough to make the film worth a look, anyway.
As Appellate Judge James A. Stewart noted in his review, it's easy to tell that Water for Elephants was condensed from a larger, more sprawling novel. Like the aforementioned Constantine, it's a film that gives the impression of struggling to contain the many ideas and characters it has to offer. The positive side of this is that the film has a certain richness and sense of depth which makes it consistently involving; we get the sense that even the small supporting roles have been carefully considered. On the negative side, there are a lot of things that seem underdeveloped (not least of which is the tender relationship between Jacob and Rosie the Elephant) and moments in which we imagine the pages describing a scene might be more involving than the actual filming of the scene.
The best thing about the film is the performance of Christoph Waltz, who once again demonstrates such a considerable screen presence that he wipes the floor with the ostensible "leads" of the film. His passive-aggressive brand of ferocity will initially remind many of his Oscar-winning turn in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, but Waltz quickly adds some intriguing shades that cause us to recognize that August is a different sort of evil. His moments of nastiness are inspired more by lack of self-control than some wicked agenda, and he is prone to retreating into pathetic self-loathing in the aftermath of these moments. Observe Waltz as he is confronted by Jacob after the merciless beating of Rosie; his eyes look very much like those of a guilty child. Even when the screenplay pushes the character into a blandly conventional brand of villainy in the final act, Waltz remains magnetic.
The second-best thing about the film is the intoxicating circus atmosphere, which Lawrence delivers generously and lovingly. There's an early montage in which Jacob wanders the circus in a glorious daze; soaking in the richness and beauty of the atmosphere. It's one of those old-fashioned moments of movie magic; a hypnotically lyrical sequence which represents the cinematic equivalent of great prose. Meanwhile, the extras and minuscule supporting character inhabit their roles with an effortless authenticity which makes it easy to get lost in this world (even if the world feels more like a lush Hollywood romance than a recreation of a real time period).
Water for Elephants (Blu-ray) does a superb job of presenting all of the film's imagery, offering a very attractive 1080p/2.35:1 transfer. The level of detail is pristine throughout, as the film's vaguely sepia-toned dips into nostalgia never employs the sort of excessive softness which often accompanies such pictures. There's very little grain present, but the flick still retains an appealing filmic look and appears very natural. Blacks are deep and inky, as well. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is also excellent, particularly when it comes to the immersive circus sequences. James Newton Howard's score is a little generic at times (certainly not as moving or memorable as his work on I Am Legend), but it's richly-presented and blends beautifully with the rest of the track. Supplements include a commentary with Lawrence and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, a handful of featurettes ("Raising the Tent," "Secrets of the Big Top," "The Star Attraction," "The Traveling Show—Page to Screen," "Robert Pattison Spotlight," "Without a Net: The Visual Effects of Water for Elephant" and "Feature Performer Reese Witherspoon") running about 74 minutes combined, a trailer and a digital copy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As I indicated earlier, the central romance between the Pattinson and Witherspoon characters never manages to become engaging, partially because the actors involved struggle to bring something compelling to the table. Pattinson is competent as Jacob, but you can see him straining whenever he's forced to deal with something a little more complicated. He's earnest and handsome, but that's just not enough for this role (particularly when you contrast his work with that of Hal Holbrook, who plays Jacob in a pair of brief bookend scenes and makes the younger actor look like an amateur in comparison). If "R-Patz" wants to shed that heartthrob image, it's going to take a little more than what he delivers in this film. Witherspoon does a decent job with what she has to work with, but this character certainly doesn't play to her strengths. In her most memorable roles (Election, Walk the Line, Legally Blonde), Witherspoon is a commanding, take-charge presence. Playing a character who withers into the background in the presence of her husband is an interesting change of pace, but Witherspoon doesn't bring anything to the part which suggests that she was the best choice.
Water for Elephants doesn't quite meet its lofty ambitions, but the riveting Waltz performance and the engaging atmosphere make it worth a look. The Blu-ray certainly looks and sounds terrific.
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