REVIEW: Water for Elephants Stars One Very Big Heartthrob, with Wrinkled Skin

Movieline Score:

Water for Elephants is one of those big, extravagant-looking romances that you might automatically deem "conventional" -- except for the fact that almost nobody makes big, extravagant-looking romances anymore. That's the elephant in the room that the movie's director, Francis Lawrence, faces head on. Whatever his movie's flaws may be, he's alive to the wonder of spectacle, and he still believes in the old-fashioned idea of movie stars: Those with two legs, and especially those with four.

Jacob (Robert Pattinson) is an aspiring veterinarian just finishing his degree at Cornell when his parents are killed in a car accident. His mind addled by grief, he ditches school and hops a train, one that, it turns out, carries a ragtag, two-bit traveling circus. It's 1931, and no one is making much of a living: The Benzini Brothers Circus makes its way by picking up performers, roustabouts and animals -- cheap -- from other circuses that have failed.

These circus people aren't a warm, cuddly bunch, and Jacob isn't immediately drawn into the fold: Someone hands him a shovel so he can help pitch manure out of the animals' cars; he's tossed into another car with an angry dwarf performer named Kinko (Mark Povinelli) as a roommate. But when the circus' manager, a cruel but complicated egomaniac named August (Christoph Waltz) learns that Jacob is a vet -- or almost a vet -- he finds other uses for him, which basically amount to protecting August's four-legged investments, which include horses, hyenas and assorted big cats.

Jacob's situation becomes precarious when he fails to save one of the show's star liberty horses. His predicament worsens when he falls in love with August's wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), a bareback performer -- she prances about bewitchingly in pink leotards and spangles, when she's not lounging languidly in liquid-satin gowns. It's love at first sight for Jacob, and maybe at second for Marlena, but their bond is strengthened further when August picks up an elephant from yet another failed circus. Her name is Rosie, and she is, they've been told, extremely stupid.

The fact that Jacob speaks her language, not just figuratively but literally, is one of the movie's loveliest touches, and it's taken not just from the novel on which the movie is based -- by Sara Gruen -- but from real life. (To tell you more would give too much away, but Gruen unearthed some interesting performing-elephant facts in the research of her book.) Gruen's novel is unpretentious and satisfying, and although screenwriter Richard LaGravenese has streamlined it considerably, he and Lawrence have preserved the book's spirit: This may be a love story, but it's also a snapshot of a lost era and a strange, exciting, rough way to make a living. Even the costumes and props all look a little faded and ragged around the edges: For all the movie's gloss and glamour, it also acknowledges some of the harsh realities of its setting.

Attempted with less skill and integrity, that delicate balancing act might have made Water for Elephants seem insincere: Is it historically responsible to make such a gorgeous-looking movie set amid hardscrabble working men and women during the Depression? But Lawrence and his cinematographer, Rodrigo Prieto, hit the unifying truth, as opposed to the contradiction, behind that idea. Water for Elephants is beautifully lit and shot, in a way that links old Hollywood with Hi-Def. Prieto is attuned to every small bit of loveliness in an unforgiving landscape. He picks up on the way sunlight sneaks in through the slatted walls of otherwise dim, drab boxcars; he sees how moonlight might find its twin glow in a white satin dress. At one point, as Jacob shovels that manure, the camera captures a tizzy of buzzing flies in a shaft of sunlight -- they're like tiny, grubby fairies -- but I don't think that shot is a joke or a bit of star-cinematographer excessiveness. Instead, it captures the urgency, the necessity, of finding beauty in unexpected corners. Even flies deserve their fleeting chance at being lit in the tradition of Hurrell.

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  • Sassy says:

    Great unbiased review!
    One question. Zombies in I Am Legend? I thought they were supposed to be vampires, though they weren't outwardly called so.

  • Remy says:

    I'm looking forward to this. I kind of like that the critics are calling it old-fashioned because it makes me hope this will be a throwback to what Hollywood used to do so brilliantly in a different era. The acting looks good, everything on the crafts side looks fantastic.

  • Kristin M. says:

    The fact that Robert Pattinson was cast as the main character in this movie, and that he can't even act should really make you take a couple more points off of your rating, don't you think? The rating is a little too high for your review. I know you're not reviewing him, but...
    You're not afraid of the little twi-hards coming after your behind for saying something bad about him, are you?

  • Lilian says:

    i know its too late but whats with all the hate whats wrong with all of you? Just trying to bring a young man down shame on all of you, give him to grow into his own.

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