When I finished Sara Gruen’s novel, I hugged it before I put it down. I just loved the feel of it, the story, the characters, and I was sorry when it was over. When they announced the film, I was pleased — until they announced that Robert Pattinson would be playing Jacob, the lead. The last time I did not want to punch Pattinson in the face was when Voldemort cut him down in a cemetery in Little Hangleton. Even with Reese Witherspoon and the two-for-two Christoph Waltz, I was nervous that the main character would not be the lovely man I had loved on the page. Then Hal Holbrook plays elderly him in the framing narrative, and all was well in the world. Of course Waltz is as always a freaking genius. Pattinson and Witherspoon do look strange together, but it’s no matter — the story flows smoothly around them; it’s less about any love among these people than love for the world of the circus, anyway.
If you don’t know the story, Pattinson falls into the company of The Banzini Brothers, Waltz’ circus, in 1931, and amazing Depression-era adventures ensue. Witherspoon is Waltz’ headliner and wife (in that order, most times) and she and Pattinson bond over the animals in her act and his veterinary care. It’s a small-scale yet epic story of financial woes, seemingly untrainable animals, terrified roustabouts, dead ends, and three people entangled by necessity. The first view Pattinson has of the bustle of circus life is actually just as I had pictured it (even the camera angle), and the rest of the movie continued to hit all the marks I imagined when reading the book. So, I was pleased despite Pattinson’s initial jarringness to give him credit. By the time Rosie the elephant came on the scene, I’d forgotten all about his other movies and could enjoy his earnest vet’s conflicted situation.
Witherspoon is luminous and well-cast, though at times the screenplay forgets how important she is — but with such a man as Waltz playing circus owner and ringmaster August, I probably would have cut her back, too. Waltz is handsome, fearsome, charismatic, quietly powerful, and perfect, just perfect. The three film roles I have now seen him in have stolen the show each time. The characters share a sort of alluring menace to them all, but it doesn’t seem like he has been pigeonholed as an actor. The only other actor I could see in this part is Gene Hackman twenty to thirty years ago, and even Hackman lacks the top-hatted smoothness that Waltz imbues his character with, even in private scenes.
Water for Elephants is a great story, beautifully rendered, with good, solid performances. And lots and lots of animals! Go see it.
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release date: 4/22/11
Time in minutes: 120
Director: Francis Lawrence
Studio: 20th Century Fox