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Water for Elephants movie poster

Water for Elephants: Movie Review

Genre: Drama
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, Hal Holbrook
Released by: 20th Century Fox

In Short: This tepid adaptation of the best-selling novel of the same name never sets off any of the passionate sparks that made this period tale of big-top romance such a steamy, emotional read.

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Lust and Longing Under the Big Top

For those who read Sara Gruen’s 2006 huge hit novel “Water for Elephants,” the new film adaption directed by Francis Lawrence (“Constantine”) may come as a bit of a surprise. For while much of the framework of the story remains intact, there’s a key difference.

There’s still a love triangle at the center of this tale of a traveling circus circa 1931, involving a handsome young veterinarian, the beautiful star of the big-top show and her husband, the brutal ringmaster. The difference in the film is that August, the husband, is also the ruthless owner of the circus, piling on another level of cruelty to his already flawed character. And that’s where the problems with the movie begin.

Compressing the two characters, ringmaster and owner, into one mega-bad guy turns August, as portrayed by Oscar winner Christoph Waltz, into a completely one-dimensional character. He’s simply Mr. Evil, with little or no room for nuance, thus losing much of the depth of the novel’s character of August. Sadly, that lack of depth spills into the main character of Jacob as well. He’s the veterinarian and the ostensible hero of the piece, but as played by Robert Pattinson of “Twilight” fame, he’s more of a sensitive wimp than a leading man, whose limited appeal is in his looks. The guy’s just got no personality or charisma whatsoever in the role.

Christoph Waltz and Reese Witherspoon in Water for Elephants Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon in Water for Elephants

Having to choose between those two is Marlene, the glamorous star of the circus. Academy Award winner Reese Witherspoon gives the role her all, looking great in a series of skimpy costumes and proving she’s game for anything, from riding horses bareback to scampering up atop Rosie the elephant, who’s the real star of the movie. But what she cannot dredge up are any sparks with her human co-stars. There’s not a nanosecond of real emotion that comes across with either of her leading men. And if you’ve read the book, you know there’s supposed to be passion pulsating through every moment this story; instead, the movie is a tepid meander to an easy-to-predict climax, even if you haven’t read the book.

There are certainly some positive elements to “Water for Elephants” — it looks fantastic, for example, evoking the period of America’s Great Depression masterfully. And the animal sequences are compelling, especially when the elephant enters the plot. Rosie, whose real name is Tai, is an amazing animal, and she steals every scene she is in. It’s unfortunate that the same cannot be said for Robert Pattinson, whose limited acting range is the downfall of this bland adaptation.

Reviewed by Jenny Peters


(Updated: 04/22/11 CT)

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