Water For Elephants (2011)

Technically, I am a teenage girl (though I won’t be for much longer…The “teenage” part, I mean. Not the “girl” part.) So therefore, I suppose I am in the target demographic for Water for Elephants. Overall, though, my hopes for the film were not especially high, since it looked like a somewhat melodramatic love story, and I’m not a huge fan of those types of films. However, it wasn’t quite what I expected…

Water for Elephants is based on the 2006 debut novel by Sara Gruen. It tells the story of a young man, Jacob (Pattinson), in depression-era America who hops a train that turns out to be home to a travelling circus. After joining on with the band of misfits, Jacob begins to fall for the show’s mysterious star attraction, Marlena (Reece Witherspoon), who is married to the eccentric ringmaster and Boss, August (Christoph Waltz).

It sounds like a pretty standard “forbidden love” story, right? Well, in some ways it is. But Water for Elephants is also incredibly entertaining. I found the story entirely compelling, and it moves along at a brisk enough pace to prevent Twilight-esque scenes of endless, longing gazes. It puts the characters in peril, and even though the film becomes increasingly melodramatic, it also becomes exciting and tense. I actually cared about what happened to the characters, and director Francis Lawrence built suspense very effectively.

The standout of the cast for me was definitely Waltz. Borrowing from his Inglourious Basterds role, he teeters between disarming calm with hysteria, and he makes for a pretty sinister and unique character. He, like all of the leads, seems to get more comfortable as the film goes on, and he’s magnetic on screen.

Witherspoon also does a very capable job as Marlena, but the surprise for me was Pattinson. He turned in a solid performance, and it’s easily the best I’ve seen him on screen. It’s a role that demands a lot more emotional range than he’s previously shown, and he’s up to the task. There is still some affectation in his performance and certainly room for improvement, but he finally convinced me that he has the potential for some interesting performances after Twilight.

Water for Elephants is also a very elegantly shot film. It basks in its smoky, nostalgic 1930’s backdrop, and it also captures the “magic” associated with vintage circuses. The costumes and art direction are beautiful, as well, and I challenge anyone to watch this film and not have the slightest pang of wanting to join the circus.

As well, Lawrence gives us some breathtaking shots that reinforce the monotony of the nomadic lifestyle. There’s an almost Groundhog Day-like
quality to setting up the tents and animals at each stop, only to pack everything up a day or two later and do it all again.

But while the film does give us an interesting look at the circus lifestyle, the romance is ultimately at the heart of Water for Elephants. And while I don’t know if it fully articulates the process of Jacob and Marlena falling in love, once they are in love and trying to be together, I believed it, and I was along for the ride.

I’ve seen a lot of people compare this film to The Notebook, which in some ways is valid. But speaking as someone who never liked The Notebook, I think that Water for Elephants is much more effective and tells a more interesting story. I don’t even think that the love story overwhelms in Water for Elephants, and between the circus plot and surprising amount of “action” scenes, it’s not strictly a chick flick. (For what it’s worth, the guy friend in our group really liked it.)

Water for Elephants is a little sappy at times, but overall, it’s a really fun cinematic ride. Though it comes just short of being a “great” film, it’s one of the best romance movies I’ve seen in a while, and I could even see it becoming one of those love stories that lives on, for better or worse (think The Notebook, Titanic, Love Story, etc.) It won’t please everyone, but if you get swept up in the story like I did, you’ll probably have a pretty good time.

7/10

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