AWFJ Women On Film – “Water For Elephants” – Review by Susan Granger

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Given the quality and popularity of its visually rich, romantic source material, this screen adaptation disappoints. But it’s not a total loss.

In a prologue, an elderly man (Hal Holbrook) stands in the rain outside a circus and recalls in a flashback what brought him there. In Depression-era 1931, Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) was a veterinary student about to graduate from Cornell when his Polish parents were accidentally killed. Bereaved and penniless, he jumped aboard the Benzini Bros. Circus train. When the sociopathic, often sadistic ringmaster August (Christoph Waltz) discovers his background, Jacob’s hired to care for the animals, particularly those of star performer/wife, Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). And when August buys an elephant named Rosie, it became Jacob’s job to train her for Marlena’s act.

Unfortunately, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese has so condensed Sara Gruen’s best-seller that many pivotal scenes are simply glossed over by director Francis Lawrence. The melodrama would have been better served as an atmosphere-rich TV mini-series, like “Mildred Pierce.” What’s lost is the complexity of the gritty circus milieu and subtle, suspenseful character development.

Sulky, miscast “Twilight” vampire Robert Pattinson seems almost passive in his anguish, achieving zero chemistry with far-too-ladylike Reese Witherspoon. As a result, Christoph Waltz (“Inglourious Basterds” Oscar-winner) and Hal Holbrook deliver the most confident performances.

Tai, the huge pachyderm who plays Rosie, steals the show. Middle-aged at 42, Tai grew up at a Florida animal park until she was eight, when she was purchased by trainer Gary Johnson, owner of Have Trunk Will Travel in Perris, California. Tai’s resume includes appearances in “George of the Jungle,” “Larger Than Life,” and “Operation Dumbo Drop,” along with music videos, TV shows and live appearances. While working, Tai has her own custom-made 48’-long trailer. She receives daily baths and once-a-month pedicures, along with treats like apples, carrots, jelly beans and coconuts.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Water for Elephants” is a compressed, stilted 6. Circus-lovers should re-visit Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth” or “Trapeze” with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.

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Susan Granger

Susan Granger

Susan Granger is a product of Hollywood. Her natural father, S. Sylvan Simon, was a director and producer at R.K.O., M.G.M. and Columbia Pictures; her adoptive father, Armand Deutsch, produced movies at M.G.M. As a child, Susan appeared in movies with Abbott & Costello, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Margaret O'Brien and Lassie. She attended Mills College in California, studying journalism with Pierre Salinger, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, Phi Beta Kappa, with highest honors in journalism. During her adult life, Susan has been on radio and television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic. Her newspaper reviews have been syndicated around the world, and she has appeared on American Movie Classics cable television. In addition, her celebrity interviews and articles have been published in REDBOOK, PLAYBOY, FAMILY CIRCLE, COSMOPOLITAN, WORKING WOMAN and THE NEW YORK TIMES, as well as in PARIS MATCH, ELLE, HELLO, CARIBBEAN WORLD, ISLAND LIFE, MACO DESTINATIONS, NEWS LIMITED NEWSPAPERS (Australia), UK DAILY MAIL, UK SUNDAY MIRROR, DS (France), LA REPUBBLICA (Italy), BUNTE (Germany), VIP TRAVELLER (Krisworld) and many other international publications through SSG Syndicate. Susan also lectures on the "Magic and Mythology of Hollywood" and "Don't Take It Personally: Conquering Criticism and other Survival Skills," originally published on tape by Dove Audio.