Water for Elephants

For a romantic drama, Water for Elephants lacks chemistry between the leads but is saved by supporting roles and an impressive production design.

Candy floss served with eye candy might just be the best part about this adventure film masquerading as an old-fashioned romantic drama. Such is the lush detail in visual aesthetics, but not much praise can be afforded when it comes to its narrative adaptation.  

Directed by Francis Lawrence, Water for Elephants is based on a bestselling novel of the same name by Sara Gruen. While the novel is a moving tale about tragedy, abuse, murder and forbidden love, the cinematic adaptation by Richard LaGravenese (whose previous screenplays includes The Bridges of Madison County and The Horse Whisperer) feels diluted with watered down violence and almost non-existent emotions from the lead characters. In fact, the film begins like Titanic and The Notebook, both bitter-sweet romantic sagas where an elderly character is tasked with narrating the story through flashbacks. This is when we first meet Jacob Jankowski (Hal HolBrook), a 90-year-old Polish-American visiting a travelling circus, after wandering away from his nursing home. In narrating an incredible story to the circus owner, Jacob goes back to when he was a 23-year-old veterinary student at the esteemed Cornell University. Tragedy strikes and the young Jacob (Robert Pattinson) finds himself homeless and then a stowaway on a freight train that turns out to be the home of the Benzini Brothers travelling circus show. Instead of being thrown off the locomotive, Jacob is recruited by the circus owner, August (Christoph Waltz), to train their latest attraction, Rosie the elephant. Jacob works wonders with Rosie, but also falls in love with Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the star of the circus and August’s wife. If you thought Waltz was a charming but devious Nazi Colonel in The Inglorious Bastards, wait till you see what he is capable of as a jealous husband with murderous intent.  

To say that Waltz steals the show is obvious, but hugely aided by the fact that Pattinson and Witherspoon are mismatched from the very first scene they are in. Owing to a PG-13 classification, none of the steamy affair from the book finds its way into the adaptation. That’s perfectly acceptable. The real problem is the lack of chemistry between what is supposed to be star-struck lovers. As much as I regret saying this, Pattinson’s brooding vampire and Kristen Stewart’s poker-faced expressions from the Twilight films now seem forgivable in stark comparison to the deadpan romance in this film. This becomes a tiresome letdown not only due to the poor choice in casting but fundamentally detracts from the palm-sweating romance elements in the book.  Besides the leads, every other character has something to offer including one of the most overwhelming scenes from – believe it or not – Rosie the elephant.  

Water for Elephants isn’t all that bad when considering the director’s flair and how he chooses to layer this story with style. Let’s not forget that the setting is depression era 1930s and as such, cinematography and production design are top notch when encompassing the bells and whistles of the circus business. Pacing is as kinetic as a locomotive picking up steam (excuse the pun), leading up to a finale that is as spectacular and explosive as you would expect in an action-adventure film. Fortunately or unfortunately, the overall exposition merely serves to mask what should have been a remarkable love story. But even then, Waltz and his revamped bipolar personality in August makes it just a tad worth your time.

Rating: ★★★☆☆


About Lloyd Bayer

Besides his passion for travelling, photography and scuba diving, Lloyd is a prolific film critic having contributed hundreds of film reviews to web and print journals, including IMDb and local daily Khaleej Times.