Water for Elephants is a slick and proficient romantic drama that smacks of golden era Hollywood with its clear-cut love story and elaborate sets. The movie is based on Sara Gruen’s novel and is set in America in 1931 in the middle of the great depression. It’s a straight forward tale of a boy, Jacob, who loses his parents to a fatal car crash which leaves him homeless. Having run away before his final veterinary exam at University, Jacob winds up joining the Benzini Brothers circus. Once there, the bullish owner, August, takes a shine to him and he soon becomes the circus’ in-house Vet. However, things get more complicated when Jacob falls in love with August’s beautiful wife Marlena, the star of the show.
August brings in a bull Elephant called Rosie in a bid to turn the ailing circus’ luck around which ultimately brings Marlena and Jacob closer together. Eventually, after several stolen glances and close calls, the two of them finally kiss. Naturally, under the watchful eye of August, it is not long before their romance is finally rumbled and the circus proves to no longer be safe for Jacob. This plot may sound a touch run-of-the-mill, but what saves the film from mediocrity is the astonishing attention to period detail that provides a gorgeously authentic snapshot of depression-era America.
The blossoming romance that is at the centre of the film’s plot is well rendered thanks primarily to strong performances from its three leads. Both Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon play their roles well, with Pattinson the naïve and yet charming young runaway and Witherspoon the glamorous star of the travelling circus. Chrisopher Waltz is especially good as the circus’ ringmaster and owner, the intimidating and charismatic bully August. August is an unpredictable livewire who thinks nothing of throwing his men off the moving train in the middle of the night to save money. There’s a stand out scene where Rosie has panicked mid performance and run out of the big top, so an incensed August storms to her trailer and beats her severely. The sheer intense anger exuding from Waltz is pitch perfect and he gives a great air of menace to all of August’s scenes from here on in. No other roles in the film get any character development as such. Like the star vehicles of yesteryear, it’s only the three marquee names that our requiring our attention.
Despite these strong performances though, the film does seem to lack a certain spark. Whilst the plot is perfectly adequate and keeps the attention, it does suffer from being highly predictable. You can see each new development coming a mile off and there are no surprises at all along the way. In many ways, it is a simple love story that wouldn’t look out of place in umpteen made-for-TV dramas. It’s very family friendly and the down and dirty world of the traveling circus would perhaps have benefited from a bit more grit. It would have been nice to really get a glimpse of the life these circus folks lived on the road, but due to the film’s nature, the focus is always squarely on the routines of our leads.
As I mentioned previously though, Water for Elephants main strength is its lavish sets and costumes which give the whole film a tremendous air of authenticity. It is genuinely refreshing to see a film such as this in amidst the various franchises and sequels that dominated the big screen this year so far. A film that puts its faith in its lead actors and relies on intricately designed sets rather than CG green screens. Production Designer Jack Fisk and Director Francis Lawrence deserve a great deal of praise for creating such a believable working circus. One of this disc’s extras is an insightful documentary called ‘Raising the Tent’ which chronicles the painstaking lengths these two guys and their crew went to to bring the Benzini circus to life.
Water for Elephants is a film that looks spectacular, but doesn’t quite have the inventive storyline to match. It is not a classic by any stretch, but is a perfectly enjoyable Sunday afternoon film for the whole family.
Director: Francis Lawrence
Stars: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz
Runtime: 120 min