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Water for Elephants

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Water for Elephants

Directed by Francis Lawrence

It’s not often you win a girl over by shooting her horse, but such is the case in Water for Elephants. Young Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) teeters on the verge of a charmed life: He’s doted upon by his Polish parents; he’s taking his last final at Cornell for a veterinary science degree; he’s hours from bedding the most elusive blonde in his class. In the midst of his exam, he is summoned outside and told that his parents have been in a fatal accident. The bank repossesses his house, mortgaged to pay for Jacob’s education. Homeless Jacob naturally opts not to complete his degree and starts walking the railroad tracks.

Providentially, he hops aboard the Benzini Brothers’ train, where a burly roustabout quickly seizes him. A grizzled Polish tippler prevents him from being “redlighted,” or tossed from the train. The next day, Jacob goggles at the enormous canvas big top and the multifarious animals, contained in cages reminiscent of Barnum’s Animal Cracker boxes. He glimpses the shimmering star attraction of the circus, the ringmaster’s wife, Marlena (ultraplatinum Reese Witherspoon). With that, Jacob’s hooked.

He finagles a job as circus veterinarian by touting his Cornell degree, which enchants mutable ringmaster August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz), who starts referring to Jacob as “Cornell.” Cue power struggles: Jacob wants to euthanize a crippled stallion, but August demands he fix it instead; August brutally prods the new elephant with a pointed hook, and onlooking Jacob flushes purple. Marlena soon becomes entangled in this tug-of-war dynamic. You can see where this is heading. Ultimately, Elephants’ content befits its setting: technicolored, saccharine fluff, more digestible for its spectacle than its substance.

August proves to be its most fascinating aspect. Waltz balances August’s dark volatility with genuine kindness. He leers at a terrified Jacob, commanding him to slide a bucket of rancid scraps into a hungry lion’s cage. But he also plies Jacob with champagne dinners and a tuxedo. While Richard LaGravenese’s script (adapted from Sara Gruen’s novel) portrays August as a slave driver, he had the heart—or sense—to rescue Marlena, a formerly vagrant ragamuffin.

Jacob and Marlena lack August’s dimension. Other than their love of animals and equally good looks, they fail to generate chemistry. Puzzlingly, despite the Depression-era setting, both characters are clad in J.Crew circa 1930—an inconsistency made particularly hilarious by the fact that Jacob chucks his suitcase to vault himself onto the train in the first 15 minutes of the movie.

Director Francis Lawrence, whose pedigree is comprised mostly of music videos for the likes of Britney Spears, would seem star-struck. He constantly trains the camera on his gorgeous leads, showcasing Witherspoon’s luminescent complexion and Pattinson’s razor-sharp jawline. This technique wouldn’t be egregious if Lawrence didn’t stretch it; one imagines him scurrying after Pattinson, camera in hand, to record closeup tracking shots.

By zooming in so closely, so frequently, Lawrence deprives viewers of the rich ’30s atmosphere meticulously fashioned by his art department. Lawrence doesn’t always waste his settings, however; on occasion, he presents satisfying full shots of the big top being hoisted up or parades of exotic animals. In those moments, we’re contentedly dazzled by the circus.

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