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Water for Elephants(2011)
A veterinary student abandons his studies after his parents are killed and joins a traveling circus as their vet.
For more about Water for Elephants and the Water for Elephants Blu-ray release, see Water for Elephants Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on October 29, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writer: Richard LaGravenese
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, James Frain, Hal Holbrook, Paul Schneider
» See full cast & crew
Water for Elephants Blu-ray Review
A boy and his elephant.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, October 29, 2011
The circus has been the setting for scores of films from the silent era onward, perhaps because it serves as a rather potent metaphor for the filmmaking process itself. When Water for Elephants' leading character Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) waxes rhapsodic about working with dirty guys he wouldn't want to be seen out in public with in order to create magic under the big tent every night, untold masses of film crews are probably nodding in agreement and understanding. But the fact remains that circus stories have had a curiously spotty history on film. For every outright classic like Fellini's La Strada or Charlie Chaplin's The Circus, there are handfuls of less stellar properties, including everything from the enjoyable if silly and melodramatic Best Picture winner The Greatest Show on Earth to the Samuel Bronston behemoth Circus World to potboilers like Trapeze or even the Grand Guignol shenanigans of the late career Joan Crawford starrer Berserk!. Where does Water for Elephants land in this rather peculiar hierarchy? Based on a surprise bestseller by Sara Gruen, the film doesn't really ply the "circus as metaphor" motif, which may or may not be a good thing, and instead just plops Jankowski down in this literally larger than life setting evidently for little more than the color it provides. While the setting may be relatively unique, the story itself is old hat, a young man finding himself in an unfamiliar environment whilst also falling in love with a woman already involved in a less than wonderful relationship. (In fact an at least somewhat similar love triangle exists in several other circus-carnival films, including Carol Reed's Trapeze, and the use of a circus-carnival brute is central to Fellini's La Strada). That translates into this film being a lot to look at, but very little to actually actively engage. Water for Elephants also suffers from some odd telescoping of the original source novel's events, so that sudden character motivations and/or mood swings seem to come out of nowhere and the overall story arc lurches along in fits and starts like a circus train with engine problems.
Richard LaGravenese's screenplay jettisons a large element of Gruen's novel and posits an elderly Jankowski (Hal Holbrook in a sweet if way too brief cameo) wandering around the parking lot of a contemporary circus. The circus' owner comes out to get the doddering old man out of the rain, brings him into the office, and Jankowski soon launches into remembrances of his time with the Benzini Brothers Circus in 1931. Most of the rest of the film is a flashback to that time period, with the young Jankowski derailed from graduating from Cornell with a veterinary degree when his parents are killed in a tragic accident. Finding out his father had mortgaged himself into destitution to pay for Jacob's Ivy League college career, Jacob decides to leave home and school, and sets out on foot for Albany. On a lark in the dead of night he decides to hop what he thinks is a freight train, instead coming face to face with a haggard group of men already on board a flatcar, including Camel (Jim Norton), who, in one of this film's amazing (and ultimately annoying) coincidences, shares Jacob's Polish ancestry and begins talking to the young man in their native tongue.
The next morning Jacob awakens in the flatcar, covered in straw, shakes himself off and comes out to find the train stopped and scores of people disembarking, whereupon he discovers he has actually hopped aboard the traveling circus train which transports the entire Benzini Brothers menagerie (human and animal) from town to town. Camel takes Jacob under his wing and gets the boy an introduction to the circus' imperious owner and Master of Ceremonies in the center ring, August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds), who initially doesn't want this annoying college educated kid around but relents when he finds out that Jacob (mostly) has a veterinary degree. August needs a little help as his star attraction, his wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), a specialty act who does tricks with horses, is having difficulties with her prized white stallion. Jacob quickly determines the horse is suffering from Laminitis and needs to be put down. That in turn leads to Jacob's first interaction with August's volatile and violent side, as the head honcho does not like the fact that Jacob has killed one of his most successful animals at the very time the circus is already in dire straits.
August ends up replacing the horse with an unlikely suspect, an elephant named Rosie, and he enlists Jacob to train her and Marlena to be her human partner for the act. That of course gets Jacob and Marlena in close quarters (or at least as close as you can be with a literal elephant in the room), and thus the melodrama of star-crossed love rears its turgid head. Water for Elephants wants to trade on the magical-fantasy element of circus life to infuse what is at its core a stale romance (and a not very involving one at that) with a supposedly innovative element, but it's like throwing window dressing at the burnt out hulk of an old department store. The surface layer may look somewhat appealing (and truth be told Water for Elephants is a ravishing looking film), but if you peer just a little beneath that surface, it's an ugly and not all that solid structure.
Performances here are all over the map. Pattinson is stolid and does a very creditable American accent, but he also looks strangely pained a lot of the time, as if he's passing an elephant sized kidney stone. Witherspoon has probably never had a more—er—unusual role, and she's okay but doesn't really have much chemistry with Pattinson and her scenes with Waltz are just downright creepy some of the time. Waltz is only slightly less despicable than he was in Inglourious Basterds, though he at least gets to show some range here, as August actually is a rather fascinatingly shaded character, one who can be absolutely charming, even seductive, one moment, but who can then erupt into madness at the drop of circus master's top hat. The film seems to have left all manner of bridging material on the cutting room floor, and so a number of subplots just get from A to Z with no intervening sequences (two good examples are the sudden friendship between Jacob and his dwarf roommate after a rocky start, and the sidebar of Camel's drinking problem which leads to some debilitating health issues). The film, which even at two hours seems a bit bloated, is so busy looking pretty that it forgets to provide real substance.
Water for Elephants Blu-ray, Video Quality
Whatever Water for Elephants's failings are as a drama, there's very little to complain about with regard to the gorgeous imagery presented on this AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.35:1. Director Francis Lawrence and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto bathe this film in the amber glow of memory, infusing shot after shot with a golden hued ambience that is really beautifully presented in high definition. Fine detail is outstanding throughout the film and in fact some may be slightly astounded at the level of detail in some of the close-ups featuring Tai (the elephant portraying Rosie). The film is not overly grainy (perhaps having been scrubbed slightly at the DI stage) but still retains a very filmic appearance. The CGI elements are remarkably well done and look fantastic (take a look at the Visual Effects featurette mentioned in the Supplements section of the review to see just how seamlessly and artfully they've been blended into the film's practical elements). There is some very moderate crush in a couple of dark scenes, but otherwise this is a solid, just downright pretty looking film that manages to provide some allure on the visual side of things that the film itself is noticeably lacking in other ways.
Water for Elephants Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Water for Elephants' lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is extremely well rendered on this Blu-ray, with some very nicely done surround content, especially with regard to some of the circus scenes. Crowd noises, the roars and grunts of the animals, and just the general hubbub of the acts and the audience all create a very lifelike and enjoyably immersive experience. But the track is filled with a number of other great effects, including everything from nice panning when the circus train chugs across the frame to quieter dialogue moments, which still retain a vibrancy and immediacy within much reduced volume. James Newton Howard's score is quite enjoyable, if a bit treacly at times (that slow motion dance between Witherspoon and Pattinson accompanied by piano and strings could have come right out of West Side Story's iconic meeting between Tony and Maria). Dynamic range is superb on this track, fidelity is strong and the riotous conclusion featuring some errant animals provides some great, raucous LFE.
Water for Elephants Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Water for Elephants Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Perhaps the best way to sum up the problems with Water for Elephants is to state that the chemistry and emotional pull between Pattinson and Tai, the elephant portraying Rosie, is far more visceral than that between Pattinson and Witherspoon. Water for Elephants assumes that the novelty of a circus setting will be enough to distract viewers from the tired story at the center of this piece, but that assumption is only partially true. The film would have done better to have concentrated more on some of the intriguing supporting characters in Gruen's novel, characters who actually gave the property some enticement, as well as to have done a more artful job of creating arcs for those characters it does deign to spend some time with. Still, the film is inordinately beautiful, has an intriguing (if smarmy) performance from Waltz, and boasts some great supplements (including probably the best ever featurette on Visual Effects I've personally seen), so overall this release comes Recommended.
Water for Elephants: Other Editions
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