Water for Elephants contains lots of cinematic potential, which cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Original Sin; Frida) mines beautifully, and most of the characters – including a brave and long-suffering elephant named Rosie – are quite colorful. Plus various situations in the Big Top and on a train as the circus travels from town to town add considerable suspense to the film, and stars Reese Witherspoon (Oscar winner for Walk the Line), Robert Pattinson (Twilight), and Christoph Waltz (Oscar winner for Inglourious Basterds) deliver excellent performances in the key roles here. Pattinson surprised me with his sensitive portrayal of Jacob, a young veterinarian student who drops out of college after his parents die in a tragic accident. When Jacob finds himself signed on as a circus veterinarian, he falls deeply in love with Marlena (Witherspoon), the gorgeous lady who performs with the circus horses. August, the ringmaster and Marlena’s sadistic hubby (Waltz, who may be on the way to another Oscar for his fine work in this film) stands in the way of true love, so the plot thickens.
Will newcomer Jacob be able to save Marlena and Rosie from August’s mercurial temper outbursts? And if so, at what price? Even though I knew the answer to both of those questions, Water for Elephants held my interest to the very end. But my adult daughter, who sat beside me at the screening and hasn’t read Gruen’s book, claimed to be even more intrigued.
I believe Water for Elephants must be seen on the big screen to be fully appreciated. Sometimes while watching it, I actually felt as gritty as the circus workers or as spellbound as the spectators in the Benzini Brothers Big Top. At other times, I found myself physically cringing over the brutality of August’s behavior to Rosie, Marlena and Jacob. However, the brief scenes showing Marlena performing with Rosie are among my favorites. Witherspoon never looked more lovely than she does in her sparkly circus attire while doing Marlena’s routines with the marvelous elephant.
Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) and screenwriter Richard LaGravanese (The Horse Whisperer) deserve credit for presenting a film that honors Sara Gruen’s splendid novel. While leaving out a large part of the story concerning Jacob in his 90s, the movie still gives viewers a glimpse of the old man’s spirit by casting Hal Holbrook in that role and using this veteran actor to open and close Jacob’s tale, which unfolds in flashback.
“One of the reasons I did Water for Elephants,” says filmmaker Lawrence, “is because it has love, wish fulfillment, redemption, magic and beauty. I hope audiences latch on to all these things.” As you can tell, dear reader, I’m one member of the audience who did just that!
(Released by Twentieth Century Fox Corporation and rated “PG-13” by MPAA.)
Review also posted at ReelTalk Movie Reviews.