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Movie Review: Water for Elephants (PG-13)


by Mary McCarthy, Editor

Looks like it’s no more ‘Team Edward’ for Robert Pattinson, as his character’s name in Water for Elephants is ironically (for Twilight fans)… Jacob.

Water for Elephants is the new film by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Constantine) based on the fantastic novel (which is fortunately seeing a spike on the New York Times bestseller list again as a result) by Sara Gruen.

So the question of the day is always this: is the movie as good as the book? We’ll get to that.

Robert Pattinson is smoking hot. Having mastered ‘the smolder’ as an undead teenage heartthrob, there’s no question that he is stunning in his 30s costumes, sharp haircut, and general eye candy factor. In a movie that addresses ‘illusions,’ you figure filmmakers were hoping we’d be too busy admiring his chiseled chin to notice his cataclysmically bad acting. I noticed.

Pattinson plays Jacob Jankowski, a depression-era veterinarian whose parents have recently died. He hops a train that turns out to be the Benzini Brothers traveling circus, where he ends up working as the vet. Enter a brilliant performance by Christoph Waltz (Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Inglorious Basterds evil Nazi role) as August the psychotic ringleader, and a mediocre performance by Reese Witherspoon as the ringleader’s wife, Marlena.

Seriously, there are not enough adjectives in my thesaurus to describe the incredible performance by Waltz. He may as well memorize the Oscar speech because no one will outdo him this year, which in and of itself makes the movie worth seeing.

It’s a shame the film’s headliner actors Pattinson and Witherspoon don’t generate enough electricity between them to spark a campfire, much less a three-ring love affair. It’s not clear to me whether Witherspoon’s performance could have been better with another actor, or whether the multi-dimensional literary character just didn’t translate well to film. But either way, I felt oddly like Edward Cullen was cheating on Bella Swan with the girl from Legally Blonde.

In addition to Waltz, also brilliant is the cinematic world we encounter. You feel like a ‘rube’ yourself experiencing the 1930’s depression-era circus. Scenery, costumes, light and shadow, motion and sound are combined perfectly by Lawrence to capture the essence of the period and setting. Hal Halbrook is also great in his too-short role as Old Jacob.

But the true star of the film? Is the elephant, Rosie. Yes, the 9000 pound pachyderm steals the show. Serious shout out to animal trainer Gary Johnson, who’s been with Tai (Rosie’s real name) for nearly three decades. Fansite waterforelephantsfilm.com declares “Who says an over 40, female, plus-size actor with wrinkles and little gray can’t get work?”  Where are the “Team Rosie” t-shirts?

In terms of rating and what’s appropriate for the kids, I will take a break from my usual overly-liberal ‘let the teens watch Rated R!’ vibe and say this: the movie is completely inappropriate for kids under 13. Honestly? It feels like a Rated R movie due to its adult themes. There is a great deal of violence- toward a woman and even more so, toward the elephant (who does eventually unleash a trunk full of revenge). There is alcoholism in addition to dead bodies thrown from trains, and little kids being stampeded by enormous lions and tigers. I wouldn’t let my own 13 year old watch it- so I recommend the movie for only older and more mature teens.

Back to the question, inevitably posed by Gruen novel fans: is the movie as good as the book?

And the answer is this: the movie is NEVER as good as the book. When I read the description of the bucket of rotten meat served to the big cats on the circus train in the book, I remember thinking I was going to be sick- I could not only picture that bucket, but practically smell it. In the movie, it’s just a yucky bucket of stuff with some flies on it that goes by in a single moment. You can’t capture the details of a well-written book in a film, no matter how well made. Having said that, and even considering the boring performances of the two main stars, I’d say yes, it’s worth seeing.

Just for the bad guy and the elephant.

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