This film is a target-rich environment for puns, so why not just get the lamest of them out of the way upfront? The elephant in the room (see?) is of course Robert Pattinson, who in this bestseller adaptation plays a young Polish man called Jacob. Cue the Team Jacob Twilight jokes... go ahead, knock yourselves out.
It should also be pointed out that RPatz isn’t the sparkly one this time. That shiny honour goes to Reese Witherspoon’s circus starlet Marlena, of whom Jacob reverently narrates, “I thought I’d go blind from the shine.” So Bella’s got some competition, and what’s more she’s packing a pachyderm.
The rest of the running-away-with-the-circus puns actually work to the film’s advantage. The reflexivity of an audience’s childhood dreams allows director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) to use a huge amount of shorthand on screen as some of the film’s strongest moments are beautiful montages of the circus in action. In fact the visuals are downright dreamy thanks to Terrence Malick regulars Jack Fisk and Jacqueline West handling the production and costume design, and Brokeback Mountain cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto behind the soft lenses. So with such good looks (that have little to do with RPatz), it’s a crying shame that the story boils down to a rather beige love triangle between Pattinson, Witherspoon and the ever-entertaining Christoph Waltz; none of whom manage to generate any real magic between them.
It’s 1931 and in the height of the Depression some levity is sought under the big top. After his parents’ untimely death leaves him impoverished, Jacob leaves Cornell one exam shy of becoming a veterinarian and hits the road like too many before him. Following the railway Wild Boys of the Road style, Jacob hops a passing train, which, fate would have it, is packed with circus animals sorely in need of his expertise. After a bumpy beginning, August (Waltz) – the head of this tired and struggling Benzini Bros. Circus – takes a shine to his Cornell recruit, though it is his wife Marlena who Jacob dangerously falls for. Montages, melodrama and aforementioned sparkles ensue as another new recruit – a 9000 pound elephant named Rosie – both brings Jacob and Marlene closer together and draws the brutality out of August.
As soon as she arrives, Rosie effortlessly steals the show. Played by 42 year-old film veteran Tai (The Jungle Book), Rosie brings exuberance and whimsy into every scene she’s in; breathing much needed oxygen into Pattinson’s wounded shtick as well as giving Witherspoon’s performance literal, as well as figurative, height. Performance-wise, the only actor to come close to Rosie’s easy charm is Waltz. With two of novelist Sara Gruen’s characters collapsed into one volatile ringleader, director Lawrence does well to allow Waltz free reign to brandish his swiftly trademarked brand of jovial malevolence.
Water for Elephants is also bookended by a present day appearance of an aged Jacob, played by a top form Hal Holbrook. Holbrook’s charisma mostly saves the cloying dialogue of these scenes, but much like the backstage Malik recruits, his talents seem a little squandered. For this is a fine but ultimately unremarkable film. It turns out that despite some lovely tableaux, inbuilt childhood fantasy and some solid acting, that not even an elephant in the room can bring enough lustre to make up for the story’s ho-hum lack.
- Three Stars
Australian release date: 12 May 2011