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Film Rewiew: Water for Elephants

May 03, 2011 09:07AM ● Published by Wendy Sipple

Based off the novel by Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants follows Jacob, a young man who loses his parents during his senior year at Cornell University while studying veterinary medicine. Without his parents support during the start of the depression Jacob is forced to leave school and by chance finds himself a part of a circus.

Jacob is quickly put in charge of the star event of the show, an elephant by the name of Rosie. Incidentally Jacob works with the beautiful Marlena, the elephant rider. The two quickly form a romantic interest in each other but the catch is Marlena’s husband happens to be August, the ringleader of the circus. The cold and callus August rules the circus with an iron fist and is most protective of his beautiful wife.

I had mixed feelings about Water for Elephants. The story of Jacob, his introduction into the circus and how this one ring operation works is a very interesting story. Far more interesting than the romance angle that the movie ultimately focuses on. Also the supporting characters and performers of the circus were fascinating and I found myself wanting to learn more. It was fun to see this varied bunch of misfits come together as family living out of a train. The scenes of hazing and other social aspects of the circus as a whole seemed authentic and were the best scenes of the movie.

Christoph Waltz, who played the part of August, was terrific and stole the show everytime he was on screen. His strong performance however helped highlight the weakest part of the movie. Reece Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson are clearly miscast in this movie. The role of Marlena called for a girl who was scared, stuck, and lacked the confidence to escape in her situation. Reece Witherspoon just at first look does not emote these characteristics at all. Just by appearance Reece Witherspoon has the look of someone in control, serious, and unflappable. She is a very capable actress but just did not fit this part at all. 

Reece Witherspoon is then paired with Robert Pattinson who is also horribly miscast in this film. I hate to pile on, but Robert Pattinson is not a good leading man. Physically he fits the part, he’s tall, girls seem to think he’s good looking, and I can definitely say he doesn’t over act. His problem is he under acts. It’s as though he lacks the ability to show a range of emotions. So his gaze to show love looks the same as his gaze of anger. In scenes calling for subtlety it was hard to tell what Jacob was feeling at the moment. This held particularly true in moments when the spark of love was implied through glances and looks between the two leads, it just didn’t work.
My problems with the romance aspect of the story extends beyond the casting however. I find myself bored and uninterested in the standard set up in movies of married or committed girls cheating for true love. The stories always paint the husband or boyfriend as a horrible guy, so when our heroine cheats we accept that as a good and just thing. And of course the new guy is good and noble making it that much easier to look past the immoral act being portrayed. I wish writers could be more creative in the way romances are structured, and the best romances are able to operate outside this structure. 

The movie also features two of my other pet peeves. The story is told as a flashback, so Water for Elephants is bookended by current day material. These scenes at the beginning and end of the film offer little in interest or important information to the overall film. The movie would have been better served without it. In addition the film uses voice over for an extended time at the beginning of the film. So much of what we could have learned through action was just told to us which ultimately lessens the impact of the film. 

So while Water for Elephants as a whole is competent, it is far from great. Judging by the love the fanbase has for the original novel I have a feeling they will be disappointed by the movie. As someone who has never read the book, I can say I was disappointed that the screenwriter didn’t ditch the love story and focus it’s time on the circus itself. This was the strength of the movie and there definitely was enough story there to carry a movie. Perhaps if the leads were more appropriately cast I would have felt differently. Water for Elephants is better than the bad romantic comedy, but it was frustrating because it could have easily exceeded what it was, an average movie.

FILMS LIKE WATER FOR ELEPHANTS : The Bridges of Madison County, A Walk To Remember and The Horse Whisperer


Justin Buettner is Style's resident movie dude! How did he get this role? Well, he graduated from Loyola Marymount University with a Bachelor of Arts in film Production and a duel minor in Animation and Business with an emphasis in the entertainment field. He later went on to work on several independent films in various key roles including writer and later worked in the special effects field as a motion capture artist. He has since relocated to the Sacramento area with his family and continues writing for small independent films in addition to his movie reviews for Style Magazine.

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