Starring Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson & Christoph Waltz
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Rated PG-13, 120 minutes
Release date April 22, 2011
Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson find adventure, danger and romance as part of a ragtag Depression-era circus in Water For Elephants, Hollywood's adaptation of the bestselling 2006 novel of the same name.
Witherspoon plays Marlena, a beautiful equestrienne whose radiant, sequined entrances atop a magnificent trained steed, the show's star attraction, make audiences swoon. Pattinson is Jacob, a young college student who hops aboard the circus train, quite literally, after the tragic death of his parents and the loss of his father's veterinary practice.
Christop Waltz, so memorable as a deliciously malicious Nazi in Inglorious Basterds, plays August, the circus ringmaster and Marlena's domineering husband. August can be a charmer, but he rules with an iron fist and treats people—and animals—with equally sadistic disdain. The air becomes charged with volatility whenever he's around.
The ensuing love triangle between the three main characters takes shape around an elephant named Rosie, which August acquires on the cheap after another struggling circus goes out of business. Rosie becomes the emotional bond that brings Marlena and Jacob together, and the eventual object of August's violent, raging jealousy.
The movie does a good job of capturing the circus atmosphere and immersing the viewer in its uniquely tempting world. We're introduced, on a walk through the clickity-clackity moving train cars, to the performers: clowns, acrobats, roustabouts, hoochie-coochie girls. We learn, alongside Jacob, about how things work on both the inside and the outside.
One particularly elegant, almost dreamlike scene captures Jacob's wide-eyed wonder after his first night on the train. As he wanders around in the golden glow of the morning sunshine, he marvels at the boxcars being unloaded, the tent stakes being pounded into the ground, the raising of the center pole—and the wondrous sight of the lovely Marlena.
Almost all movie adaptations of a popular novels cut narrative corners, and this one is no exception. Water For Elephants has the story, characters and setting right, but much of the book's symbolism—about water, elephants, and the circus and train as metaphors—are missing. Even the title hangs in limbo, with no real context to explain it. Viewers who haven't read the novel will wonder why it's called Water For Elephants, since that particular action is never referenced or depicted.
The movie, does, however, show other elephant services—but “Lemonade For Elephants,” “Booze For Elephants,” or “First Aid For Elephants” just don't have the same literary ring.
Pattinson, 24, best known for the Twilight movies that made him a teen heartthrob as a hunky vampire, still has some room to grow as a leading man. His performance as Jacob seems a bit wooden for a character that ends up fighting for both his love and his life.
Witherspoon is a fine actress, and she looks terrific, especially close-up when the movie's “retro” lighting bathes her in luxurious luminescence like a screen queen from a bygone era. It's nice to see her in a serious, sensuous role that almost makes you forget about the comedy flops Four Christmases and How Do You Know. And how many actresses get to put “elephant riding” on their resumes?
But it's getting hard for any star, in any movie, to share a scene with Christoph Waltz and not be completely eclipsed. August is the story's “bad guy,” but it's impossible to take your eyes off him—or fail to understand how Marlena, in the circumstances she eventually describes, could have fallen for his silver-tongue charms.
Pattinson and Witherspoon may be the movie's heart, but Waltz provides the high-voltage hydropower that keeps Water For Elephants driving toward its explosive, destructive conclusion.