Water for Elephants


Review by Dave Herbelin

I had debates with myself if I was the right person to review “Water for Elephants”, directed by Francis Lawrence. I had read the first half of the book (which I liked, but lost it so I couldn’t finish it) and I was performing a circus-type show with bubbles (soap and WATER) 30 feet from a herd of ELEPHANTS at San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park. It seemed like I qualified. However, this was obviously going to be a chick flick, and I am a guy. Perhaps it should be reviewed by a woman. Realizing my wife says I’m secretly gay was my deciding factor to go forth with the review. So I’m writing this with my masculine and feminine selves.

Overall, my masculine side says this film is a blockbuster that you’ll quickly forget you saw. My feminine side says Robert Pattison is hot.

What drew my masculine side to the book was the story of what life was like in a circus during the great depression. In the book there was a cast of characters with diverse quirks and each character had an integral role in the production of the circus. Life was hard from all sides and one had to walk carefully to not anger any fellow work hands without threat of a fist to the head or being thrown out a moving train. My feminine side was drawn to the love story and animals.

The film miniaturized any importance of all the characters outside of the book’s love triangle (Robert Pattison as Jacob, Reese Witherspoon as Marlena, and Christoph Waltz as August). Circus life, hardship, and the stories of freaks of the extravaganza were thrown out to make room for more shots of Robert Pattison brooding over the teasing flirtations of Reese Witherspoon: Bad for the masculine, good for the feminine.

The story is told, a la “Titanic”, as it is bookended with an old man looking back and telling the story of great tragedy in which he found his true love.

Masculine side says, “If this is three hours like that other P.O.S., then I’m walking out now.”

Feminine side says, “Ohhhh! I hope Celine Dion has as song in this one too.”

When we get to the actual telling of the story, the flashback to the great depression, the direction makes a common error I’ve seen a lot lately in modern filmmaking. Directors of late assume you will like and empathize with the main characters just because they are the main characters. A far too quick back story, or life changing event may be thrown in to make us jump to the side of the hero. In “Water for Elephants”, the story opens with our hero’s parents dying in a car crash. The problem is, prior to this event, we only see the hero say two lines to the parents and one is in a foreign language we don’t understand. No investment is made establishing this relationship and therefore we have no investment in the main character when the tragedy happens. It took me half the film to finally feel anything for anybody on screen. This is a tragic mistake commonly made in films these days which leaves the audience outside the story instead of sweeping them away.

Masculine side says, “I want to love or hate someone now! Make it so, Number One.”

Feminine side says, “His parent’s died in a car crash you uncaring bastard!”

From there, the events seem to take forever. So many more events happen in the book that are intriguing and keep the plot moving as the book focuses on circus life. But as the film focuses on the love affair, we just have to sit there and wait while the affair is slowly brewing like a large pitcher of sun tea in the afternoon light.

Masculine side says, “Get me a Keurig and brew me some coffee.”

Feminine side says, “Oouuuu, Robert is brooding again! Yeah!”

Considering there wasn’t much subtext directed in this film, outside of, “I love you, but don’t look at me,” the actors do a decent job. Christoph Waltz acts circles around anyone in this film as he has done in many others. Instantly you are drawn to him and you want to watch the many layers he has to his character. While this role won’t garner him any awards, he proves that if someone one day made a film starring him, Gary Oldman, John Malkovich, and Alan Rickman, it would be the scariest mind trip ever. Reese Witherspoon holds up a close second in this film as she graciously portrays a slightly aging Main Attraction. She doesn’t look her best in this film, but her sweetness and depth come through in every shot. Robert Pattison shows potential, but that is all. He broods and he smiles. Occasionally he gets silently angry. But he doesn’t emote. He doesn’t think. I’m pulling for him to one day be the next Harrison Ford. He has the look, and there are moments in the film you think you are looking at a lost clip of “Raiders”. But he’s no Indy. Harrison Ford is an actor you like to watch think. He knows how to brood, but he also knows how to fight with words, actions, and emotions. Harrison also knows how to become humble without losing his status of downright cool. Robert has the potential to be all this, but he needs more direction. Perhaps less time should be spent on his hair, and more time spent on hanging out with a Wookie. As for the actors:

Christoph Waltz –
Masculine side says, “Yeah! Be evil!”
Feminine side says, “He’s way too old for Reese.”

Reese Witherspoon –
Masculine side says, “She’s not as hot, but I’d still do her.”
Feminine side says, “I wish I could look that good after kids.”

Robert Pattison –
Masculine side says, “Please leave your teen-heart-throb-ness behind you.”
Feminine side says, “Bite me please!! No, Really!!”

The visuals are beautiful without overwhelming or taking over the story. The score is a great fit. But that’s all I can say about the technical aspects, which, to me, is a lot. The cinematography and score are in sync with the storytelling process instead of fighting with it.

Masculine side says, “What do you mean that’s all you noticed about it? You’re not a true Movie Guy.”

Feminine side says, “Yeah, okay, sure, whatever. Robert looked good.”

Overall, the film is struggling with three main problems. Bad choices on what part of the story they put on film, not enough subtext in the scenes, and a star that gets through the film by just brooding. It showed solid film making skills, and allowed for a decent character arc. With a solid cast of A-list stars, it will probably be a box office success opening just below 20 million (18.8 is my guess). However, two months from now, it will be forgotten, placed on DVD, and debated over when you make your next Red Box selection. It’s another great book which will be lost to obscurity because of a film that just missed the beauty of the story.

Masculine side says, “Go see it if you want to get somewhere after a date.”

Feminine side says, “Girls, let’s go see why our guys aren’t like Robert.”

*** Three out of five stars because there ain’t much else out there.

Directed by: Francis Lawrence
Release Date: April 22, 2011
Run Time: 122 Minutes
Country: USA
Rated: PG-13
Distributor: 3 Arts Entertainment


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