Rules are meant to be broken, as the old adage goes, and I think the same goes for clichés. People always talk about the book being better than the movie and for the most part I agree. Especially when the book is amazing. I’m pretty sure some people will disagree with me here, since this movie is based on a super popular book, but I thought Water for Elephants most definitely fits into the breaking clichés category.
Maybe this is because I didn’t like the book so I had lower expectations. I’m not sure.
The movie (and book) is about Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson), a young veterinarian student who is forced to walk the rails and comes across a circus train. He soon becomes the veterinarian for the circus and eventually the bull man for Rosie, the elephant. Along the way he integrates himself with the enigmatic ringleader and his beautiful wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). August (Christoph Waltz) the ringleader, and Jacob’s boss, is by turns generous and charismatic and evil and controlling.
While I wasn’t a fan of the book, the setting was interesting—a circus in the 1930s—and that is what made the movie for me.
Seriously, the movie is gorgeous. Even when you’re sitting in the second row off to the right hand side so everything is a little distorted. One of my favorite shots is when the workers are pounding in the stakes for the circus tent. It starts with a close up of the stake and then hammers come from every angle, one right after another, almost like a dance. The camera then pans out as the tent is heaved upwards by men dripping sweat. The shot is awe-inspiring while still highlighting the intensity of the worker’s task. It may look awesome, but it’s hard work.
By comparison, the shots of Marlena’s performances are lush and almost fantasy like. The grittiness and desperation of the bawdy, floundering circus is lost. Even though Marlena’s acrobatics seem simple compared to what I’m used to with technology and CGI, the film made me feel like I was witnessing something special. Something amazing.
Even the costumes are worth the cost of a movie ticket today. The discrepancy between the poor, Jake drinking workers and Marlena and August is fascinating. The dresses worn at the cocktail parties looked luxurious even by today’s standards. When Jacob walks down the train to August’s car it is like entering another world—a bubble of wealth in a dark, smelly, violent arena. August’s car looked like something out of a first class art deco hotel and Marlena donned beautiful gowns for the nightly dinner. I would love to wear one of those long, slinky oh-so-art deco pieces.
The accessories were also perfectly picked for the time period. But, what really got me, are the costumes worn during the circus performances. Given the amount of detail paid to every other visual detail in the movie, I am going to assume the costumes are historically accurate. However, I am surprised by the skimpiness of Marlena’s costumes. Sure, the important bits are covered, but for a family friendly event in the 1930s, it seemed awfully risqué.
Unfortunately, Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson have no chemistry. Their scenes are awkward together, despite Witherspoon’s immense acting chops, and I couldn’t believe their attraction. Maybe it’s because Witherspoon isn’t believable in her role as the rough-edged survivor with a great love for animals—she was too prim and ladylike (and she can’t ride a horse well). Or maybe it’s because Pattinson can’t act. Instead of looking pained and brooding he looked out of it or high.
In any case, it’s not their romance, or their performance that makes the movie. When the two stars are in scenes with Rosie (played by Tai the elephant), they fade into the background, and everything is focused on Rosie. She steals every scene she’s in. I swear she acts better than Pattinson, and I certainly cared more about her. When she and Marlena perform, I wasn’t watching Witherspooon and her elegant cartwheels. No, I was watching Rosie, wondering at the 8-ton pachyderm’s grace. Whenever Jacob was in trouble I worried, but who is going to take care of Rosie?
All in all, if you’re looking for a heart-wrenching melodrama, look somewhere else. Water for Elephants may bill itself as that, but it lacks the heart of a romance. But what it lacks in heart, it makes up for in beauty. Beautiful scenery, beautiful costumes, and of course, the beautiful elephant.
P.S. if you’re an animal lover, take note: I cried. I cried a lot. I cried when an animal got put down in the beginning and I cried every time Rosie got hurt. Be prepared. Bring Kleenex!