Water for Elephants feels like it should have been made in Hollywood’s Golden years; a sweeping romantic drama spanning two generations and with its focal point as a travelling circus seems almost out of place in the twenty-first century. Almost.
It begins with an old man (Played by Hal Holbrook) at a circus in modern day America, he’s missed the show but instead manages to begin telling the story of the Benzini Brothers Circus disaster to the attendants.
It’s a basic setup, one used on countless occasions (Titanic for example) but still manages to draw the audience in with the promise of a spectacular circus disaster. However, it then cleverly subverts our expectations by plunging the audience into the story of an illicit relationship between Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon.
On many levels, this drama delivers. It has two attractive people at the centre and an “evil husband” (played by the scene stealing Christoph Waltz) whom Pattinson must rescue Ms.Witherspoon from. Witherspoon is simply radiant and Pattinson plays the young and eager circus hand with a pleasantly cheerful step away from ‘Burly Edward’ in the Twilight series. It is really quite easy to get swept in the majesty of it all. Though not necessarily breaking any new boundaries, it covers the almost fairy tale like material with gentle humour, romance and panache. It’s easy to dismiss their relationship as hard to believe – there is at least a ten year gap between the performers – but such criticisms are foolish, the couple bond over the mutual affection for the titular elephant and are, let’s face it, both ‘Hollywood’ attractive.
In a way, that is the main problem with ‘Water for Elephants’. It is essentially very basic filmmaking, the story is fun but still predictable, the writing is smattered with clichés and the two lead performances are only good. It’s very hard to criticise the film, but then it is also equally hard to call it a triumph. There are of course some truly standout moments, for instance a scene in which the eponymous elephant pulls its stake out of the ground in order to reach a jug of lemonade is simple but demonstrates that a cheeky elephant can put a smile on anyone’s face.
However, the best aspects (other than Christoph Waltz’s almost frightening performance as the circus master) lie in the design of the film. Everything from the Circus train and animal enclosures to the Big Top itself felt as if they’d been dragged out of some cellar somewhere having not seen the light of day for 80 years. The setting and costumes of the film reflect the majestic and slightly melancholy tone of the story perfectly, the film owes a lot to the design.
So, despite being essentially a romantic fairy tale set in a circus, ‘Water for Elephants’ managed to endear itself towards me. Its simple charm and moral story is hard to dislike at the very least. Perhaps not a masterpiece, but certainly worth watching before the summer blockbusters numb our minds until winter.