It’s always hard for me to write a review for something that I neither loved nor loathed. Such is the case for the movie adaptation of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (which I haven’t read), starring Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson and Christoph Waltz. It has talented actors, nice production values, and beautiful costumes but for some reason doesn’t connect emotionally.

Set during the Depression, it’s the story of Young Jacob (Pattinson), a Cornell veterinary science student who joins the circus as the vet after a family tragedy leaves him homeless. He falls for the star attraction, Marlena (Witherspoon), who’s married to the evil Machiavellian boss, August (Waltz). Jacob struggles between his need for a job and the horror he feels when he sees August mistreat the animals. In the end, Jacob has to decide what kind of life he wants and whether he can give Marlena the one she deserves.

Though the movie has one heartthrob and two Oscar winners in it, Tai the elephant, as Rosie, steals every scene she’s in. She’s more expressive than Pattinson, makes us gasp in wonder, whimper in pain in sympathy, and clap with delight. She has more chemistry with the humans than the leads have with each other, which is ultimately the movie’s downfall.

This is the first time I’ve seen Pattinson play a normal person without any wizardly or vampiric powers and he’s rather…dull. There’s no extra oomph factor that makes an actor truly memorable on screen. Meanwhile, the normally spunky Witherspoon is subdued as the trapped Marlena. They both look great—her slinky gowns are to die for—but there’s absolutely no heat between them. When you can’t feel the love in a love story, it’s a problem.

Waltz’s performance as the capricious August is masterful; the actor made me tense from bracing for the violence that might erupt from his character at any time without warning. I can’t think of many actors who could’ve played this part as well as he did. But it’s similar to what Waltz did in Inglorious Basterds and therefore didn’t feel as fresh.

Since I’ve never seen a live circus, I did enjoy the few glimpses of the show under the big top. I marveled at the acrobats and Rosie doing her tricks. But once the lights in the theater came up, the movie left me with an empty feeling, as if the circus had moved on and left me wanting more.

Nerd verdict: Elephants lacks emotional weight

Photos: David James



  • Reply
    Coffee and a Book Chick
    April 27, 2011 at 5:22 am

    I loved the book and was hoping for this to be a wonderful movie. To be honest, though, I was unsure about Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon as the characters. They were definitely not what I pictured, but I was hoping it would work out.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      April 27, 2011 at 1:53 pm

      Which actors did you picture as the characters?

      • Reply
        Coffee and a Book Chick
        April 28, 2011 at 5:46 am

        Hmm. Not sure if I ever gave a lot of thought as who would be the perfect choice in Hollywood to play the characters since I hate it when they do make them into movies. Most books aren’t done justice when they’re translated to film (we know that), but Robert Pattinson is not someone I think of for this character. And Reese Witherspoon? I haven’t been happy with most of her movies since Sweet Home Alabama.

  • Reply
    April 27, 2011 at 6:55 am

    I’m wondering if Christoph Waltz is getting typecast. The way you describe his character in this film and referencing Inglourious Basterds (he did somewhat similar in Green Hornet, too), seems like it’s just the same role with a little variation. I’ve not read this book, but many reviews on the web seem to love it. However, it just doesn’t draw me. I’ll probably check it on Netflix. Thanks, as always, for your fine review, Elyse.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      April 27, 2011 at 1:54 pm

      I didn’t see GREEN HORNET but from what you said, it sounds like Waltz might be falling into a pigeon hole. Which is unfortunate, because I think he’s brilliant and can probably play other roles besides evil men.

  • Reply
    April 27, 2011 at 10:24 am

    I read the book years ago for a bookclub, and feel rather the way you did about the movie – ambivalent with a new found love and respect for elephants. I also really enjoyed the novel’s depiction of the Depression, prohibition and the circus, but (again, just like you and the film) weren’t attached to the people. I still want to see this movie (anything with sparkly gowns, obviously) but will definitely temper my expectations. I had thought this was going to be the rare “movie better than book” gem. But I’m rare in my not loving the novel – I know many people who are crazy for it!

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      April 27, 2011 at 2:04 pm

      I liked the depiction of the circus folks, too, and their struggle to just get by. And I absolutely adored Tai; she’s the best actress in the movie!

      If you love pretty gowns, your eyes will pop out at Reese’s. They’re not sparkly, but beautifully cut and made out of rich, sumptuous materials.

  • Reply
    April 27, 2011 at 11:14 am

    I haven’t fidgeted so much during a movie since I was a kid too afraid to brave the dark walk thru a dimly lit theater to relieve my bladder.

    I kept thinking the movie would be better suited to cable TV, maybe not Lifetime, but maybe an HBO Original? Yeah, that’s probably too harsh, but I do agree Tai stole the show. And I do somewhat agree with Leopard13 about Christoph Waltz, but as long as Waltz keeps me wondering what he’ll do next, I’ll still watch him. I don’t think there’s anyone out there like him right now.

    Don’t know what the director was thinking in casting Pattinson. He’s easy on the eyes, but there’s nothing compelling about him. I just couldn’t believe his character is supposed to grow older and become Hal Holbrook. Really? Holbrook has more charm in his little finger than Pattinson’s entire performance. Really bad decision making in the casting here.

    • Reply
      Pop Culture Nerd
      April 27, 2011 at 2:10 pm

      Yes, Holbrook had much more screen presence in the few scenes he had than Pattinson did in the whole movie. I’m not a Pattinson hater (he’s Cedric Diggory!); I just think he was merely adequate and nothing special.

  • Reply
    April 27, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    I heard the same reviews from a lot of people, actually. They thought the whole thing lacked the good angst of a melodrama, and that there was zero chemistry between Pattinson and Witherspoon.

    Adding to what le0pard say. I do think Waltz is getting typecasted. And that’s sad, since I think he’s genious.

    Thanks for this. I think I’ll wait ’til they air this movie on TV to watch it, if I care by then.

  • Reply
    Hira Hasnain
    April 28, 2011 at 1:02 am

    First of all, I definitely did not picture Robert Pattinson for Jankowski. Reese for Marlena seemed like an okay choice, since she has that sunny disposition but can turn a dark corner, when needed. Waltz was the only person who I think was perfect for the role. Thank you for your awesome review, I really enjoyed it! 😀

    Email: Enamoredsoul(at)gmail(dot)com

  • Reply
    Shell Sherree
    April 28, 2011 at 2:50 am

    The ads have just started for this one, so we aren’t too far behind. Not that it matters in this case, as I won’t be trotting along. I vowed years ago not to watch movies with animals in them and even then, I’m often caught out ~ they sneak in as bit parts and I’m stressed for the entire movie hoping nothing happens to them! But it’s good to know your thoughts on this one anyway, PCN ~ I always enjoy reading your astute perspective.

  • Reply
    Pop Culture Nerd
    April 28, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    Poncho—Waltz is amazing. Let’s hope we see something different from him soon.

    Hira—Reese was mopey and sad through much of the movie so she didn’t even get to display her sunny side. Who did you picture for Jacob?

    Shell—One scene would stress you out so it’s a good idea for you to avoid this movie. I think you’d love Tai, though. She’s so cute and cuddly for such a giant animal.

  • Reply
    May 2, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    Sounds like the movie was better than the book. I had to read it for book club a few years back and it’s on my list of worst books. I have also noticed that most people like the book and am always stunned. It may not have been the actors that weren’t any good at the characters; it may just have been the source material. (Of course, as source material, I’m clearly biased on this one.:)

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