Film Review: Water for Elephants

Water for Elephants is an entertaining movie that should satisfy its target audience. The splendour of the setting is however betrayed by the flatness of the narrative.

Jacob is studying for his veterinary examinations when his parents are killed in accident. With no remaining family or home, he leaves his hometown. Jumping on a train, Jacob stumbles into the world of the travelling circus…

Based on Sara Gruen’s novel, Water for Elephants is at times a very sappy affair. Nevertheless, the violence can be startling; bring proceedings sharply back into focus. The drama retains the audience’s attention, even if it is not particularly original. Director Francis Lawrence tells the story in an appropriate fashion. The pacing is good; the film does not feel its two-hour length.

Although the backdrop of the circus is a little different, Water for Elephants is a standard romantic drama. As such, the characters are fairly archetypal for this genre. Given its period setting, female protagonist Marlena is confined by the restrictions of her gender. This allows her to rely upon a man to protect her, Marlena’s dependence being a condition of the era. Similarly, Jacob is a fairly typical hero. He shows no real flaws, and is the antithesis to circus-owner August. The protagonist is offered very little development; it is unclear what motivates him. It is also difficult to see why Marlena would fall for Jacob, besides the very obvious contrast with August. The protagonist has little spark, and pales in comparison to the great showman.

Water for Elephants appears engineered to generate a feeling of nostalgia. This is cemented by the 8mm footage, which attempts to look like real home movie footage. This adds very little to the film, and could have easily been omitted. Elsewhere, the imagery takes on a fantasy-like appearance. The circus seems overly pristine, but the costumes are wonderful. The editing is good, and combines very well with the sound in the more violent sequences. Effects in the climax are also good, but there is some inauthentic-looking CGI earlier in the film.

Robert Pattinson is adequate as Jacob, but shows little spark. This is partly due to lack of character development, but there also seems to be a lack of vigour in Pattinson’s performance. It does not help that he is shown up by Rosie the elephant and her wonderful tricks. Reese Witherspoon inhabits the character of Marlena well, but it is Christoph Waltz who steals the show as August.

Water for Elephants will entertain but there is nothing particularly special about the movie. The sense of spectacle of the circus is not replicated by the film itself.