David James / 20th Century Fox
David James / 20th Century Fox
Review in a Hurry: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz are swept up in a romantic triangle that unhinges under the big top. Set during the Great Depression, the height of the circus era, Water For Elephants is unflinchingly honest—and hard to watch—regarding the treatment of animals, but that's as it should be.
Plus, Waltz is brilliant as the menacing ring leader, Rosie the elephant is the most enduring non-human in years and Pattinson plays a young man—named Jacob!—with a special connection to jungle beasts. Start writing your Twilight for Elephants fanfic mashups now!
The Bigger Picture: After a tragic car crash kills both his parents, Jacob drops out of college and boards a train hobo-style. He quickly discovers that it's home to the "world famous" Benzini Bros. Circus group (a distant third to the much more popular Ringling Bros.) He attended school to be a vet, so why not take care of their animals?
Jacob has literally joined the circus.
He meets the charming but rage-filled August (Waltz) who likes the idea of a man of science added to his employ. And once he sees August's wife, the beautiful Marlena (Witherspoon)—Benzini's star human attraction—he's instantly smitten.
The real star of the film, however, is Waltz. An actor with an endless supply of charisma, needed when you're playing a man who tortures defenseless animals. He has his reasons, fearing for Marlena's life when Rosie freaks out at her debut performance, but still, he goes way too far. This scene in particular can be hard to sit through. Yet as gut wrenching as it can be to see August punish the soulful-eyed Rosie it strengthens the narrative. Stories can be made better with great villains, and this is certainly the case here.
It's a good thing too, since the heart of the story is pretty standard. Jacob's an animal lover who falls for the like-minded Marlena. But she's married to that jerk August. All too often the baddies in these tales are one dimensional and there's never any push and pull for audiences. Clearly, we want Marlena to end up with Jacob.
But as played by Waltz, August is a great example of a man who's made desperate and angry by the period in which he lives. (Pre-Depression he might have been more successful and less psychotic.) This observation of 1930s America rings true in today's economic climate as well, where the Sheen's and Gibson's of the world have their meltdowns in the media's center ring. That kind of madness can easily become campy, but Waltz keeps the character grounded. You simply can't take your eyes off him.
It's slightly disappointing that Rob and Reese, who are equally likable, don't generate much heat as the couple we root for. Both are solid, but the characters of Jacob and Marlena don't leave much of an impression. It could be the source material, but since the novel by Sarah Gruen has millions of fans, we're inclined to think otherwise.
Director Francis Lawrence is a good fit for the material. His previous two films, Constantine and I Am Legend, were set in world's that could have been merely dark and depressing, but his use of bright colors changed the feel of those pics. Likewise, the dreary world of Elephants sports a stunningly rich color palette, essential for a story set in a circus.
Rosie is played by Tai, a 42-year-old veteran of motion pictures. The sequences with Tai the elephant are extraordinary. Seeing Reese on top as Tai gets up on her hind legs reaching for sky is breathtaking. It's amazing and really cool that this is a real flesh-and blood pachyderm and not a computer generated one.
The 180—a Second Opinion: Fans of the book might be put off by some of the changes. The biggest being that the novel was structured as a mystery. This has been completely stripped away in favor of a straightforward drama.