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.