Set in depression-era America, Water for Elephants tells the story of Jacob (Robert Pattinson), a young man studying veterinary sciences at Cornell University who, after his Polish-immigrant parents are killed in a car crash, abandons his studies and joins a struggling circus. Working as their vet, he has to learn to deal with his volatile and violent boss (Christoph Waltz), all the while struggling with burgeoning feelings for that very same boss's wife (Reese Witherspoon).
What we thought
Bringing to mind the told-through-flashback-style narratives of great films like Big Fish, Forrest Gump, Fried Green Tomatoes and Amadeus, Water for Elephants starts off with a lot of promise. Even the presence of the Twilight series' own Robert Pattinson can't dispel the feeling that you're in for something truly special. Sadly, two very long hours later, it's hard not to find yourself wondering just where on earth all that promise went. Water for Elephants isn't a bad film by any means but it is a very underwhelming one.
The biggest problem – or one of them, anyway – is that the story itself just isn't all that hot. The film may set itself up as a classic piece of storytelling but it soon becomes clear that the narrative being recounted by the film's protagonist is not quite original. It has its moments but this is a story that feels overly familiar and any possible interest is cast aside for the rote and uninspiring convention of having the young hero getting involved with the wife of a dangerous villain and... well, I'm sure you can guess the rest.
Director Francis Lawrence has shown in his past work (Constantine, I Am Legend) to be a director with a certain amount of visual flair but only a perfunctory sense of storytelling. Ultimately, the story does feel like an afterthought to capturing the lavish look and feel of a very picturesque (if not exactly prosperous) time in America's history. It's a fine looking film and it does convincingly capture a world that is alien to most of its audience but you almost wouldn't notice if they left the story out entirely.
Weak story or no weak story, one thing is certain, though: no one would have noticed if they left Robert Pattinson out completely. Or, for that matter, if they replaced him with an action figure of his Twilight character. Aside for being able to pull off a fairly convincing American accent, Pattinson is a very limited actor and an almost non-existent screen presence. Put him up against a very fine actress like Reese Witherspoon, he struggles to keep up and he all but fades into the scenery the minute the brilliant Christoph Waltz appears on screen.
If there is one reason – scenery aside – to see the film, it's Christoph Waltz. His character isn't a million miles from his villainous roles in Inglourious Basterds and The Green Hornet but he's such a wonderfully charming yet menacing screen presence it's hard to complain. Indeed, earlier portions of the film hinted towards his character being fairly complex and more morally ambiguous but, unfortunately, he is soon reduced to a more purely evil, moustache-twirling baddie to allow for the conventional forbidden love story to play out as neatly as possible.
But then, that right there, is the problem with the film in general: it never allows its run-of-the-mill storyline to ever live up to the complicated and intriguing world in which it is set.