Water for Elephants
Why are we reviewing this failed adaptation of Sara Gruen’s 2006 novel, Water for Elephants? Well, we like circuses and my wife enjoyed the novel. We think Christoph Waltz is one of the more interesting actors to watch these days and frankly, we just plain like Reese Witherspoon, who hasn’t made enough solid films the last few years. Then there’s director Francis Lawrence, whose Constantine I thought was underrated. With the box office disappointment out this week on disc from 20th Century Home Entertainment, it was time to give it a look.
This Depression-era story tells of Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson), a would-be veterinarian whose studies at Cornell were cut short given the economy. He hits the road, as did so many others, but only he stumbled across the Benzini Brothers Circus, run by August (Waltz) and featuring his wife Marlena (Witherspoon). They need a doctor on the cheap and he gains invaluable practical experience caring for the menagerie being carted from town to town.
Jacob also gets a hard lesson in life as he watches August abuse both wife and elephant and Jacob tenderly fills the void for both. Things go awry when August learns of Jacob’s interference with his life and profession, setting up an inevitable confrontation.
There’s plenty of drama here, plenty of atmosphere and themes to explore, but the power of the novel is sapped by a labored film adaptation in the hands of screenwriter Richard LaGravenese and director Francis Lawrence. While he struggled to successful bring Constantine’s snark to film, ruined by the Americanization to accommodate Keanu Reeves, he did Richard Matheson a disservice with I Am Legend so the jury was still out on his skills. This third flawed adaptation proves the man is tone deaf to the beauty inherent in the prose. All three films call for unique settings and moods but rather than feast on a bleak 1930s America, this feels like a typical Hollywood vision of that time.
In adapting the book’s rich characters and psychological interrelationships, Lawrence comes up short, robbing every character of their depth. The attractive cast is also the wrong cast and doesn’t give them enough actual direction leaving Waltz in need of restraint and Pattinson and Witherspoon mismatched, lacking any real spark between them. He does his best work with Rosie the Elephant which isn’t saying a lot. Had the circus performers and crew been allowed to do anything in the story, it could have been a rich ensemble piece and more satisfying look at this life on the rails.
The Blu-ray edition, not sent for review, contains plenty of featurettes while the DVD comes with just a Robert Pattinson Spotlight (yawn), a by-the-numbers piece on Reese Witherspoon, and the most interesting piece The Traveling Show: From Page to Screen. There’s also an audio commentary from Lawrence and LaGravenese but I just couldn’t care enough to finish it.
For those interested, the Blu-ray comes with the above plus Working Without A Net – The Visual Effects of Water for Elephants; The Star Attraction; Raising the Tent; and, Secrets of the Big Top.