"Water for Elephants” is an ambitiously presented dramatization of the best-selling big-top novel, and, sadly, it amounts to basically a hunk, a trunk and lots of Hollywood gunk as its story of forbidden love unfolds amid too-pretty Depression-era decor.
A story of this sort needs grit, originality, tension and passion. Instead, we get a routine love triangle presented mildly, meekly and with artificial sunshine.
Serving up a big-screen look while unable to match such fullness emotionally, director Francis Lawrence and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (adapting Sara Gruen’s novel), take us back to 1931, days of Louis Armstrong, Prohibition and circuses where animal and human denizens alike are regularly abused.
Robert Pattinson plays Jacob, a tragedy-shattered veterinary student who hops the train that happens to house the Benzini circus. August (Christoph Waltz), the dictatorial ringmaster, gives him an animal-related job.
The triangle forms when Jacob and Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) — August’s glamorous equestrian-star wife — spend animal-training time together. Jacob’s gentle treatment of the animals, especially Rosie the elephant, contrasts with August’s brutal beatings. Marlena is moved.
The two fall in love, August gets suspicious, and you don’t need to have read the novel to know that a violent climax is coming.
The film aims to be an old-fashioned period spectacle, and visually it fares decently. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto makes the circus look alluring and dazzling. The costumes ooze artistic budget.
The filmmakers also score entertainment points from the circus setting. Scenery-chewing Rosie, in particular, prompts smiles.
But overall, this is a pretty picture rather than a compelling one. The filmmakers seem to want to appeal foremost to fans of the book, and that doesn’t generally mean dynamic cinema. They introduce issues such as animal cruelty and alcoholism, but, worried that treating these subjects with due seriousness would hamper box-office numbers, they are presented weakly.
The PG-13 love story, meanwhile, contains little heat or danger. Lawrence, whose credits include “Constantine” and “I Am Legend,” delivers more sizzle and urgency in the men’s fight scenes than in the romantic material.
Pattinson, whose Jacob remains frustratingly inexpressive (dare we say he looks like the life is sucked out of him?), and Witherspoon, whose Marlena is sympathetic but not tremendously affecting in her unhappiness, don’t convince us that their characters share an intense passion.
Waltz’s August — suggesting the actor’s “Inglourious Basterds” villain with a jot more human dimension — is a caricature, but welcomely too magnetic to be upstaged by the set design.
The cast also includes Hal Holbrook as the elderly Jacob, who recalls his circus life, which transpires in flashback. Pattinson provides the unnecessary narration.
Starring Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook
Written by Richard LaGravenese
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Running time 2 hours