Step 2: Remember the book is usually better. Based on the bestselling novel by Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants is a romantic tale set in the 1930s Depression about the demise of a traveling circus. It centers on the dashing young veterinarian student Jacob (Robert Pattinson), who has his whole life ahead of him until a tragedy sends him on a journey of self discovery. He jumps onboard a train one evening and unexpectedly joins the Benzini Bros. Circus as the in-house vet, ingratiating himself with the cast of colorful characters, including the circus’ ringmaster August (Christophe Waltz) and his lovely wife, and star of the show, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). Not surprising, Jacob falls for Marlena the minute he sees her calming down her team of beautiful horses – and Marlena is a little smitten, too. But then there’s the whole matter of August, who we quickly realize has big-time anger and jealousy issues, with a cruelty-to-animals streak as an added bonus.
Step 3: Read “tepid” in graph 1. Athough I haven’t read the book, I imagine the seemingly forbidden love blossoming between Jacob and Marlena plays well on the page. Unfortunately, it’s not translated onscreen. Sparks are definitely not flying between Pattinson and Witherspoon, and while they are pretty to watch, they’ve each had much better chemistry with other movie partners. Waltz is charming, intimidating and downright scary once again, but after seeing him win an Oscar for basically playing the same heavy in Inglourious Basterds, it might be time for the Austrian actor to spread his wings and show American audiences he can do so much more.
Step 4: When all else fails, buy an elephant. No, the real star of Water for Elephants is Rosie, a 53-year-old female elephant who joins the Benzini Bros. as a last-ditch effort to boost the show’s profile. Played by a movie veteran elephant named Tai, the gentle giant certainly has more charisma with its star players than they do with each other. Witherspoon trained with Tai for three months before filming started and you can see the natural affinity the two have for one another. The same goes for Pattinson, who Tai unmercifully flirts with on — and apparently off — screen (and why shouldn’t she?) The film could have benefited from more elephant scenes.
Step 5: It’s got the look. Water for Elephants looks fantastic, I’ll give it that. Director Francis Lawrence, who helmed such visual treats as Constantine and I Am Legend, creates a vibrant, brutal world of a 1931 circus, especially on the train, with all the performers and workers and animals jammed together. Bygone traveling circuses are something to be marveled, with their rich history. It’s the unpredictability and danger and wonderment of it all, and Lawrence taps into that succinctly. It’s just a shame the romantic elements couldn’t have been more powerful and meaningful, instead of dragging down the film. I was totally ready to swoon over Pattinson and Witherspoon. Oh well.