‘Water for Elephants’ is one of the most beautiful films you’ll see this year. With the help of one of the greatest Mexican cinematographers in Rodrigo Prieto, director Francis Lawrence who helmed ‘I Am Legend’ and ‘Constantine,’ gives us a visually beautiful, colorful picture full of vibrancy and panache with love at its core. This is the theme that traverses the story at every level. You see it subtly, passionately, and in complex ways. A mixed bag of everything. Unfortunately, you need real chemistry to pull this off, not a modicum. ‘Water for Elephants’ has its great moments but it also possesses some mediocre mush that weighs it down. It is ultimately a fine film, but because it could’ve been perfect, it is measured at a different scale. The criticisms here are not of the negative kind, but would like them to be viewed as constructive, a ‘what could have been better’ analysis of the events.
The film, in essence, is the circus story version of 1997’s Titanic. It follows almost the same exact plot structure: old man narrates his story of a tragic event in the form of flashbacks when he was young, his romance with a woman that was out of his reach, and the memory of the tragedy that our narrator has never been able to forget. Robert Pattinson is Leonardo DiCaprio and Reese Witherspoon is Kate Winslet’s character, with a circus ambience. This structure is very successful, but I have already seen it and have seen it done better. I don’t think it’s nonsensical to say that many who watch the movie will feel like they’ve seen it before. It’ll be an involuntary and subconscious reaction, but one that will affect the viewer’s judgement of it.
Based on the book by Sara Gruen, ‘Water for Elephants’ swirls around the life of a veterinary student from the wrong side of the tracks, Jacob (Robert Pattinson), who meets and falls in love with Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), a star performer in a circus of a bygone era. They discover beauty amidst the world of the Big Top, and come together through their compassion for an elephant named Rosie. Both are faced with the challenge of her charismatic and dangerous husband August (Christopher Waltz), who seeks to keep his matrimony and the circus alive no matter the consequences.
Twilight heartthrob Robert Pattinson’s individual work here is the best I’ve seen him do. He’s photogenic, charming and definitely has the magic to attract a vast contingency of female cinephiles with that ‘aww shucks’ demeanor. Witherspoon is Witherspoon, nothing more, and Waltz channeled Col. Hans Landa. Very good, but again I’ve seen him perform this character better in Inglorious Basterds. I tip my hat and salute the performance of Hal Holbrook as the elderly Jacob. You almost choked up in most of the scenes he was in, especially at the end. There’s something to say about watching an elderly person be so fragile and vulnerable in a close up. It’s powerful stuff.
Pacing and dialogue play a big part in the reasons this film made one or more yawn a few times. The pace is at times uneven because the dialogue withers a bit in the middle and it felt slow and wearisome. It then picks back up only to wane again. It did this a few times until it moved consistently enough to engross you once and for all through the end. Lawrence should’ve cut some scenes and push the movie forward even if it risked cutting out his favorite scenes with Pattinson. During the fist hour I must’ve looked at my watch once or twice and a guy in the back let out a loud yawn. Is it entertaining? No, not in the Fast Five type of way, but it’s not supposed to. It is supposed to titillate my senses and crescendo into a rousing symphony of engagement for me. It never reached those heights, but it also didn’t ruin my experience. This is a delightful movie, not a preeminent one.