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Review: Water for Elephants (2011)

Water for Elephants (2011)

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Premise: An adaptation of the novel by Sara Gruen. Set in the Great Depression, a veterinarian (Robert Pattinson) joins a circus and falls for the star act (Reese Witherspoon) who is married to the troupe’s owner (Christoph Waltz). 

What Works: Water for Elephants has an impressive period look to it. The costumes and sets have an organic, lived in look and many of the supporting characters populating the film share that look to create a very believable setting. This film has some beautiful cinematography, which is most effective in the film’s quiet moments. Although this is not a special effects picture, the film does contain some impressive effects in its circus animals. Purportedly, the animals were all real but some shots are composites but the film sells that illusion perfectly. The highlight of the film are the scenes with the elephant. The filmmakers cleverly shoot the human characters’ interactions with the animal so that that it becomes another character and not just a prop. In fact, the elephant is probably the most interesting character in the whole movie. Following close behind is Christoph Waltz, who plays the circus owner. Alternatively brutal and sensitive, Waltz manages to create empathy for an abusive character, which is an impressive feat of acting.

What Doesn’t: Although it is not overly long, Water for Elephants could have been considerably shorter or at least made better use of its running time. Water for Elephants features a frame narrative in which an elder incarnation of Pattinson’s character tells the story and bookends the film. This device is unnecessary and it wrap up of the story in a very hokey and sentimental way. The love story between Pattinson and Witherspoon’s characters does not have any passion to it and the development of their relationship mostly consist of staring longingly at one another but without committing to any action that dramatize their feelings. Speaking of Reese Witherspoon, she is miscast in this role. The rest of the characters have a rustic and wearied look about them, even the comparably younger Robert Pattinson, which is consistent with the look of the picture. Witherspoon is too contemporary and too Hollywood; her character ought to have more wear and tear both physically and internally.  But Witherspoon does not possess those qualities and she appears as plastic against an organic background.

Bottom Line: Water for Elephants is entertaining despite its significant shortcomings. It’s not likely to make anyone swoon, but it might make a decent date movie. 

Episode: #339 (May 15, 2011)