As soon as Water for Elephants ended, my primary reaction was that most people’s mothers would like it. My theory was backed up pretty quickly after my own mother informed me of how much she enjoyed the film. Now, I do need to point out—and not just because my mom will probably read this and regardless of my mother’s exquisite taste (she did birth me, after all)—that stating that Water for Elephants is a film your mother will like is not a slight against the film, but merely an indication of the type of movie we’re dealing with here. It’s well-made and often slick, heavy on romance, and trades in black-and-white morality, doing everything you expect—and in some cases want—it to do. But at the same time, this perfectly well-produced veneer of austerity keeps the film in need of chemistry and fireworks, two things that ultimately restrain the film from being anything more.
In a lot of ways, Water for Elephants is very much in the vein of James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) (though, thank heavens, much, much shorter), not just in its aims and the overall mood, but in the way the narrative is built and how it runs. Like Titanic, the story is framed within the tale of an elderly person, as they reminisce on a tragic event tied to a romantic interest in their life. In this case, a great big boat sinking is replaced by a circus disaster, told through the narration of Jacob (Hal Holbrook, who transforms into Robert Pattinson in flashback), who, during the Depression, ran off and joined the circus after the death of his parents.
Jacob, who almost finished veterinary school, soon finds work treating animals at the behest of the circus’ boss, August (Christoph Waltz), a showman and cutthroat businessman—to the point he throws people off his train in order to save money. August’s wife, Marlena (Reece Witherspoon), is the show’s star attraction, and of course—this being the type of movie it is—Jacob finds himself falling for her, despite that sort of romantic entanglement being completely forbidden, and constantly causing the film to veer on the edge of tragedy.
None of this is particularly original, meaning the way the material is handled is what makes the movie. Director Francis Lawrence has made a fine-looking film, and juggles the story’s elements well, which is a surprise looking at the man’s pedigree of music videos and CGI-heavy sci-fi. But, like a lot of music-video-turned-film directors, Lawrence doesn’t quite have a handle on the human aspects of the story, placing a premium on visuals while foregoing any sense of narrative whimsy or true emotion.
Not all of this is Lawrence’s fault. There’s an occasional clunkiness evident in the screenplay, which oscillates between the far-fetched and the mawkish, while the characters’ motivations always feel at the mercy of the script’s needs rather than anything organic or realistic. Then there’s the cast, which isn’t quite so bad as it is unexciting due to a real lack of chemistry between Witherspoon and Pattison. Even Cristoph Waltz’s maladjusted bad guy is a disappointment, because we’ve seen this role from him twice already (earlier this year in The Green Hornet, and most notably in 2009’s Inglourious Basterds).
Does all this mean that Water for Elephants is a bad movie? Not at all. It can even be pretty entertaining if you’re in the mood for its prepackaged romantics, but don’t go in expecting anything approaching cinematic electricity. Rated PG-13 for moments of intense violence and sexual content.