Water for Elephants is a generic, glossy, Hollywood crowd pleaser, with the most captivating aspect being Jack Fisk’s always superb production design. While the trailer showed signs of intrigue and pathos, we get very little of each while watching this film.
The main character Jacob (Robert Pattinson), a college dropout, gets swept up with a touring company owned by a tyrannical man named August (Christoph Waltz) whose star attraction is his wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) and whatever animal they can use. They eventually get their hands on an elephant, which actually becomes a secondary character. Jacob falls in love with Marlena, and from there you can easily predict the outcome. I never read the book, which I hear is amazing, but this film does not motivate me to rush out and buy a copy. All the character arcs and emotional beats are so trite that it was almost sleep inducing.
As far as the acting goes I actually think Pattinson did a fine job as the lead, but overall none of the principal actors gave very compelling performances. I was especially disappointed with Waltz – his character is an emotional yet despotic person, but whenever he gets the chance to chew the scenery, he never takes it. In fact, I actually found him comical in one scene which required intimidation and intensity. I can understand why he would do this type of movie, but it’s sad knowing he could have done something better when he was originally set to play Sigmund Freud in David Cronenberg’s upcoming A Dangerous Method (Waltz was replaced by Viggo Mortensen).
Ultimately, I was really disappointed with director Francis Lawrence for not doing anything interesting or risky with the material that was given to him. Every shot in the movie had nothing compelling with regards to framing or composition, even with the amazing Rodrigo Prieto as the cinematographer. I actually liked Constantine and, to a certain extent, I Am Legend, but Water for Elephants is Lawrence’s flattest film to date. It feels like he just had a checklist of shots to get through during the principal photography and didn’t think too much about the blocking or actual human drama. Even when we get to the final, contrived happy ending, all emotional investment in the story is long gone. It’s disheartening, because this tale obviously had the potential to be a sweeping, romantic epic like Gone with the Wind. It just needed a better director who works well with actors and can create genuine drama.
Water for Elephants is by no means a bad film, it’s just incredibly subpar and run-of-the-mill. Unless you are a hardcore fan of the book, save your money for something else. Like ecstasy.
Click on the media bar and listen to Reese Witherspoon elaborate on working with Robert Pattinson on Water for Elephants.
Reese Witherspoon also talks about why Sara Gruen’s Depression-era set book is a worthy read.
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