For all of its similarities to Sara Gruen’s book, Francis Lawrence’s Water for Elephants does not play out like an exact replica. As a movie, Water for Elephants plays like a lopsided piece of music, hitting the right notes in some clutch moments, in the design, color, and tone. In others, the characters are stale, and the dialogue never moves beyond the expected. Without an even keel, it’s hard to gain our footing and truly root ourselves into the film.
Water for Elephants does not begin at the beginning. Instead, we meet our protagonist Jacob (Hal Holbrook) in the twilight of his life. Older Jacob makes it to the circus too late one evening. Taking pity on an old man in the rain, the circus director invites him into his trailer, where Jacob begins to weave a tale of love, getting his boots dirty, and living through a circus disaster.
First, however, Jacob (Robert Pattinson), now in his twenties, must attend veterinary school. Right before completing his final exams, he learns his parents have died, leaving behind no money. Unable to pay his tuition, Jacob does whatever any strapping, bright young man in the Depression era might do -- he joins the circus. There he meets the talented but wounded Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) and her husband, August (Christoph Waltz), the sometimes affable, often frightening ringmaster of the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.
What unfolds is a problematic romance between Jacob and Marlena, who start to fall in love over drinks and dancing and then truly unite through the care of a wounded elephant, even as August’s underlying cruelty ignites. Unfortunately, the love story is tedious compared to the backdrop of moonshine and drinking problems, even compared to the enchanting but mundane daily circus routines. Ultimately, we know there will be a disaster, and that proves to be enough anticipation to keep us in our seats. There’s magic there and many more stories to tell, it seems, but those aren’t the stories we get.
Leaving aside the love story, there is a lot to like about Water for Elephants. The backdrop, which somehow fails to inspire emotion, is still gorgeous. There is swanky music and eye candy in the form of expansive fashion. There’s something magical about screenshots with giraffes and circus lights, of moments where trains float effortlessly through a dark night. If you enjoyed the trailer for Water for Elephants -- one of the most beautiful of the summer -- the cinematography won’t disappoint.
Young Pattinson is not unaffecting here, and Witherspoon does what she can with her role, accomplishing her own stunts, without a harness. However, nothing in Water for Elephants is as affecting as the last five minutes we get to spend with Holbrook’s Jacob. When Jacob talks about the way his life panned out with Marlena it reminds me a lot of Titanic, another movie that spends its last minutes with an old soul and that person’s memories -- in the latter case, a collection of photographs.
The last scene is a quietly accomplished disclosure that makes the whole movie seem as if it didn’t last for two hours and our attention didn’t stray for even a moment. If Water for Elephants' characters were capable of even an iota of the raw emotion of old Jacob, Water for Elephants might be a hell of a different movie. As it stands, the cinematography makes it easy to forgive the wasted time, but perhaps not the purchase cost.
Fittingly, the top menu really looks like a circus handbill. The menu is easy to maneuver through and there are plenty of extras on the disc as well as BD Live connection.
Since the cinematography is really the shining portion of the film, many of the features take a look at making up the film’s vision. The first segment is called “Raising the Tent,” featuring an in-depth discussion of how production designer Jack Fisk, costume designer Jacqueline West, and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto created the circus. The actors are also interviewed and, overwhelmingly, everyone seems to be excited about the atmosphere and having a real set rather than leaving a lot to the actor’s imagination. There is a whole play-by-play bonus feature on visual effects that is one of the most incredible features I’ve ever seen on a disc, if a little lengthy.
“Secrets of the Big Top” talks about some of the historical accuracies used in the film. Then, “The Star Attraction” discusses the much-loved elephant, Ty. The disc includes a book-to-movie interview with author Sara Gruen, and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese dissects the process of turning a book into a film. Finally, there's an R. Pat featurette for the Twilight fans, and an interview with the blonde bombshell, Witherspoon, as well. Poor Waltz was left out of this. That’s what you get for being a villain.
Overall, there is a lot of good stuff on the disc, but it suffers a little from being too lengthy.