A decorous, respectable adaptation of Sara Gruen's engaging best-seller, Water for Elephants would have come more excitingly alive with stronger doses of Depression-era grit and sexual spunk. The 1931 circus setting and a love triangle involving three exceedingly attractive people provides a constant wash of scenic pleasure and the film's fidelity to its source will receive nodding approval from the book's many fans, which should result in solid, if unspectacular commercial results for this Fox release. But the vital spark that would have made the drama truly compelling on the screen is missing.
Under Francis Lawrence's sleekly studied direction, everything has been smoothed out to the extent that even dire poverty does not seem entirely unappealing. Certainly the three leads never do. Looking 300 per cent better than he did in his last non-”Twilight” outing, “Remember Me,” Pattinson is entirely convincing as Jacob, a Cornell veterinary school student who escapes from the ruin provoked by his parents' untimely death by almost inadvertently joining the circus.
Waltz, in his first big film since soaring to prominence in Inglourious Basterds, again scores strongly as a powerful middle-aged man who doesn't eliminate the snake in his grass before it's too late. As for Witherspoon, she's as fetching as ever as the platinum blonde any guy would want to catch But when August insults Marlena as being of a “common type,” it's clear Witherspoon needed to inject a bit of Jean Harlow into her characterization to emphasize the lower depths from whence she came that can never be entirely erased. Despite the hard glances and suggestion of a working class accent, Marlena is still a shade too much the lady and not enough of a dame.
Hal Holbrook does a nice job framing the tale as an elderly Jacob telling the story to a modern circus worker, although by rights he should be narrating the whole thing, not Pattinson; again, modern audience sensibilities likely came into play.
Craft contributions are excellent, notably Rodrigo Prieto's lustrous cinematography,
Jack Fisk's highly realized production design and Jacqueline West's resourceful costumes.
ETA: Added Moviehole's review - Read the full review at the source
But the main attraction here is the performances of the three stars. Witherspoon has been very scarce on screen since winning the Best Actress Oscar in 2005 for “Walk the Line.” In the six years before winning the award she appeared in no fewer than nine films. Since, she has appeared in half that number. Her work here is perfectly nuanced in a role that could have quite easily been cliché’d. Waltz is perfect as August in a role that shows us why that Oscar win was so well deserved. But the surprise here, for me anyway, is Pattinson. Quiet and brooding in the “Twilight” films he seems to jump off the screen here, matching Waltz and Witherspoon scene for scene. Who knew this kid could act?? Well done young man. Applause also to the great Hal Holbrook, whose performance bookends the film. And I would be remiss if I didn’t include praise for Rosie the elephant, Queenie the dog and the other animals that help tell the story.
Another review: 3.5 Stars from the Chicago Tribune - Rob is good, not great. The word the reviewer uses is "effectively"
Review from ComingSoon.net - Rating: 8 out of 10 - Click to read full review
The Bottom Line:
Few films deliver exactly what's advertised as well as "Water for Elephants" does with the results being an old school Hollywood romantic epic unlike anything we regularly see anymore. The fact it works as well as it does is a strong testament both to the source material and to those involved with bringing it to the screen.