'Water for Elephants' doesn't make you want to trumpet


April 25, 2011|By BOB GARVER | Special to The Herald-Mail
  • In this publicity image released by Twentieth Century Fox, Robert Pattinson, left, and Reese Witherspoon are shown in a scene from "Water for Elephants."
AP Photo/Twentieth Century Fox, David James

"Water for Elephants" has plenty of details in its production and not nearly enough details in its story.

The film was made by a very professional team. It has the look, sound, and feel of a great cinematic epic. It probably even deserves a handful of Oscar nominations in the minor technical categories. Alas, the film is so flawed in its script that it cannot go down as an Oscar nominee even for what it does right.  

Robert Pattinson stars as Jacob Jankowski, a promising young veterinary student who drops out of Cornell University after the sudden loss of his parents. Immediately resorting to a life of Depression-era vagrancy, Jacob stows away on the first train he finds. It turns out the train belongs to the Benzini Bros. circus, and they need a vet for all the performing animals they've been mistreating.  

The circus people are a community unto themselves, a kingdom if you will. That would make the owner August (Christoph Waltz) their king. He's quite a mad king at that. He knows everything about putting on a show, little about treating animals or people with respect and nothing about business. At least he usually has his star performer wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) by his side to keep his temper under control.  

August and Jacob clash early when August wants Jacob to treat his other star performer a white horse. Jacob thinks the horse should be put down.  August wants the horse to keep performing at all costs. Jacob puts the horse down. August nearly has him killed and implies that he has had others killed and will have others killed again.  

At this point Jacob should probably run away from the circus. But since August stops just short of throwing Jacob off the train, Jacob must think he's earned enough respect to be immune from further punishment.  

Indeed it does seem that way. August soon buys a new star attraction — an elephant named Rosie. Nobody knows what to do with an elephant, so Jacob is put in charge by default. He is soon a recurring party guest of August and Marlena, and since the film takes place during Prohibition, the parties include more alcohol than a modern party.  

August usually gets drunk and goes to bed early. Jacob and Marlena begin to have conversations of their own. Marlena is becoming more and more frightened of August's violent, crazy behavior. The conversations are about to include more than talking.  

The rest of the film follows Jacob and Marlena's quest for love and freedom. It isn't easy since August is good at keeping people under his thumb. He is even able to track them to a specific hotel room despite the story taking place in the 1930s when tracking technology had only come so far.  

But he isn't above turning violent toward his star performers and making them too ugly to perform, which when you think about it can only hurt him.  

Waltz is brilliant as usual as the villain, but I can't say the same for Pattinson and Witherspoon. Even if you can look past the actors' 10-year age difference, they still have surprisingly little chemistry in a film that wants to be a romance above all else.  

The emphasis on romance may be the downfall of "Water for Elephants." I was fine with the film as a chronicle of Jacob's life with the circus. Surely there are a number of colorful characters in the kingdom, but the story devotes most of its time to only three. Two minor characters make a major difference late in the story, but I had completely forgotten who they were.

Details of the story like that are the film's weak points. Stronger points are the film's camerawork, music, costumes, sets, and other carefully-attended technical aspects  I wish these aspects had been a part of a better overall film than "Water for Elephants."  

Three stars out of five.  

"Water for Elephants" is rated PG-13 for moments of intense violence and sexual content.  Its running time is 130 minutes.

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