Review: WATER FOR ELEPHANTS (2011) | Casey's Movie Mania | Movie Reviews, Features & Others

Sunday, 12 June 2011



A forbidden love triangle set in a historical backdrop. First thing that immediately comes to mind is TITANIC (1997). And that's the similarity you will find in Francis Lawrence's WATER FOR ELEPHANTS. Instead of a backdrop set in the ill-fated Titanic ship, the movie is set against a Depression-era traveling circus backdrop. Instead of a love triangle involves Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), Rose (Kate Winslet) and Caledon 'Cal' Hockley (Billy Zane), we have Jacob (Robert Pattinson), Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) and August (Christoph Waltz). Comparisons aside, WATER FOR ELEPHANTS is a beautifully-filmed classic romance drama that evokes the Hollywood of yesteryears. Except that the supposedly central attraction of the love triangle setup is very predictable and formulaic.

The movie begins with a present-day prologue where a nonagenarian nursing-home escapee Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook) is taken in by a young circus worker named Charlie (Paul Schneider). Then a long flashback takes place during the Depression-era America in the year of 1931 as Jacob begins telling a story of his past to Charlie. The young Jacob (Robert Pattinson) was just about to take his final exam when he received a devastating news that his parents were killed in a car crash. If that's not enough, he also discovered that they have left behind a mountain of debt because of paying for his education.

Homeless and desperate, Jacob had nowhere to go until he simply hopped a passing train. His fate abruptly changes once he meets a grizzled old man named Camel (Jim Norton) and the rest of the people in a train actually belongs to the Benzini Brothers. The Benzini Brothers is a traveling circus company, owned by a ruthless circus owner and ringleader August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz). Jacob lands himself a temporary gig as a general worker until he catches the eye of August one night. Jacob, who has a knowledge of veterinary medicine, quickly impresses August when he tells that his precious white horse named Silver Star is suffering from a severe injury that needs to be put down. The white horse is part of an all-important circus act for his star-attraction wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), and August has specifically warns him not to do anything to kill the horse because he can't risk losing a lot of money. However, Jacob chooses to disobey him and ends up shooting the horse instead, even though he knows August won't be pleased at all. Surprisingly, August loves his determination and decides to keep him as his show's vet.

Soon August replaces the white horse with a clever elephant named Rosie as the new star attraction, and putting Jacob in charge for the training session. It doesn't take long before Jacob grows increasingly attached to Rosie's kindness and power where he is subsequently treating her as a friend. At the same time he also falls in love with Marlena, which eventually ignites August's short-tempered rage against the forbidden couples. Not only that, he shows no mercy against Rosie whenever the elephant disobeys his order.

Based upon a bestselling novel by Sara Gruen, Richard LaGravenese's adapted screenplay is strictly by-the-numbers. We have seen this kind of story countless times before, but even an oft-told story can be beautifully executed if done right. Thankfully, the storyline here is fairly watchable. While the love triangle setting may have been falling short of expectation, at least the movie's depiction of traveling circus lifestyle is stunning enough to watch for.

Forget about his stilted sad-eyed performance as Edward Cullen in the TWILIGHT saga, as Robert Pattinson has somehow proves himself a better actor here with a fairly soulful performance as the sympathetic Jacob. Reese Witherspoon is wonderfully charismatic as Marlena, while a brief performance by Hal Holbrook who plays the older Jacob shines with a poignant performance.

But the biggest star attraction of the movie is Christoph Waltz and Rosie the elephant (whose real name is Tai). Waltz, who is originally set to be played by Sean Penn but dropped out afterwards, gives a wickedly menacing performance as the ruthless August who can be both charming and terrifying the next. He carries the movie so well that each time he's not on the screen, he is sorely missed. No doubt this is his best performance to date since his Oscar-winning turn in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009). Then there's Rosie the elephant whose performance is so charismatic she's a show-stealer. Her vocalizations of happiness, fear, despair and body movements is both breathtaking she's a true marvel to look at. Her more tragic moments, especially when she is brutally beaten with a bullhook by the sadistic August the first time when he commands her to move, is simply heartbreaking.

Francis Lawrence's direction is slick as always, while Rodrigo Prieto's glistening cinematography and Jack Fisk's splendid production design, are all equally top-notch.

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