Directed by Francis Lawrence of Constantine and I Am Legend fame – or infamy, depending on your take – and written by Oscar nominee Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, 1991), Water for Elephants stars Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line, 2005), Robert Pattinson, Oscar winner Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds, 2009), and an elephant named Tai (Rosie in the film) as four living creatures inextricably linked at a Depression-era circus. Hal Holbrook narrates the story in flashback.
Despite all the talent involved in the production, including a number of Oscar winners and nominees, Water for Elephants has been greeted by wildly mixed reviews. Some critics found both the movie and its cast enjoyable; others found both the movie and its cast – with one exception – pretty but hollow.
The one exception is Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz, who has been invariably singled out for his performance as a psychotic ringmaster who viciously abuses Rosie, Reese, and RPattz in unequal measure. (Rosie gets the brunt of it – though as per materials on the film, Tai was never actually touched during production, which has the seal of approval from the American Humane Association. If only real circus animals were as lucky.)
Currently, Water for Elephants has a mediocre 43 percent rating among Rotten Tomatoes‘ top critics.
See below snippets from various Water for Elephants reviews. See also AP (negative) review and The Hollywood Reporter (positive) review of Water for Elephants.
Below are snippets from various Water for Elephants reviews. Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, and Christoph Waltz star. Francis Lawrence directed. Screenplay by Richard LaGravenese.
There is quite a bit to enjoy in a film that certainly qualifies as broad-based popular entertainment. But because the ingredients are so promising, there hangs over this serviceable project the wish that it had turned out better still. Director Francis Lawrence, who works in music videos as well as features, has an unmistakable gift for bravura spectacle, but the absence of convincing romantic chemistry means that the emotional connection that should be this film’s birthright is not really there. Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times.
Director Francis Lawrence and his design team show us the era through a circus train full of grimy sleeper cars and people wearing the same clothes since last week, a place where the employees, like the shepherds in the Bible, smell like the animals and belong nowhere else. … In the very air of Water for Elephants is a quality of loss and desolation that makes us see the quick fixes of bootleg liquor and the distractions of forced merriment as all too human and sad. Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle.
That old conflict plays well, and it’s probably not due to director Francis Lawrence. He also made the awful I Am Legend and Constantine, and all he’s done here is replace his usual visual excesses with thick layers of wall-to-wall music. More credit probably goes to veteran screenwriter Richard LaGravanese [sic], who’s always had a touch for strong female characters … While the dialogue occasionally falters (did people in 1931 really say things like “That was cool!”), the situations ring true. Stephen Whitty, The Star-Ledger.
Like The Notebook, but with an elephant, the unexpectedly good film version of Water for Elephants elevates pure corn to a completely satisfying realm of romantic melodrama. Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune.
There’s something endearingly old-fashioned about a love story involving a beautiful bareback rider and a kid who runs off to join the circus. What makes Water for Elephants more intriguing is a third character, reminding us why Christoph Waltz deserved his supporting actor Oscar for Inglourious Basterds (2009). Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times.
Unlike the story’s colorful gang of roustabouts, who dismiss ticket buyers as “rubes,” the filmmakers clearly value their public, crafting a splendid period swooner that delivers classic romance and an indelible insider’s view of 1930s circus life. Peter Debruge, Variety.
Below are more snippets from some of the more negative Water for Elephants reviews. Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, and Christoph Waltz star in the circus melodrama. Francis Lawrence directed from a screenplay by Richard LaGravenese.
But the timid screen adaptation … short-circuits the novel’s quirky charms and period atmosphere by its squeamish attitude toward gritty circus life and smothers the drama under James Newton Howard’s insufferable wall-to-wall musical soup. Stephen Holden, New York Times.
Rosie is good fun as far as cute elephants go, and it’s nice, I suppose, that when the going gets rough she can go rogue in the service of gallantry. But it made me squirm that a movie with a love-conquers-all message includes the injunction that we must be kind to animals not because they are living beings, but because they can be induced by pricey Hollywood wranglers to perform tricks — like chugging back whiskey-laced lemonade or flirting with hunky movie stars — that remake them in our image. Ella Taylor, NPR.
The elephant in the picture is obvious, but the one in the room is harder to quantify: Does the sheer Hollywood hoopla – hunky young Pattinson, histrionic Waltz, Witherspoon haloed in back-lighting, Rosie doing head-stands, the Depression making nice – add up to a perversely enjoyable brand of something that can be loosely called entertainment? I think it does. More important, for the sake of the tinsel in Tinseltown, I know it must. Rick Groen, Toronto Globe and Mail.
A circus memoir of the 1930s … Elephants is itself a flashback to Hollywood’s midcentury, when sentimental best-sellers routinely became films of high purpose … The movie mood then was serious and swoony, essentially feminine; now it’s ironic — by which we almost always mean sarcastic — and very dude. I’d be pleased to see a vibrantly romantic picture defy the Zeitgeist and restore one of Hollywood’s central genres. This just isn’t the movie to do it. Richard Corliss, Time.
This old-fashioned melodrama about a romance set amid the big top is mildly entertaining, though the best performances come not from the stars, but the supporting players. Claudia Puig, USA Today.
Below are review snippets about the performances of Robert Pattinson, the star of Twilight, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse and the upcoming The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1, and Academy Award winner Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line, Legally Blonde) in Francis Lawrence’s Water for Elephants. Most critics felt Pattinson and Witherspoon lacked chemistry in their love scenes.
Pattinson, however, did generally get better reviews than those he received for Remember Me early last year. But then again, critical reception to Pattinson’s performance was hardly what one would call overwhelmingly positive. Witherspoon, for her part, hasn’t had a critical hit in quite some time.
Though fans of the Twilight series are not going to be pleased to hear this, the weak link in this melodramatic chain is Pattinson’s performance as Jacob. Though his removed affect made him ideal as one of the undead, that quality makes him seem sullen, petulant, even pouty here. In a season that’s seen strong chemistry between Matt Damon and Emily Blunt in The Adjustment Bureau as well as Jake Gyllenhaal and Michelle Monaghan in Source Code, the absence of that quality here is especially noticeable. Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times.
For all I know, the actor Robert Pattinson may be hell on wheels onstage, where he’s done Shakespeare and Cole Porter. But thus far in his film career, he’s mostly demonstrated uncommonly lovely bones and a thorough mastery of looking tenderly down upon the desolate damsels nestled in his arms. No one has yet asked him to do any serious screen acting — with or without sparkly sprinkles on the preternaturally pale skin that, along with his apparent reluctance to play celebrity, has proved so alluring to American teenage girls. Ella Taylor, NPR.
You know how they say to find one thing and do one thing well? Well, Pattinson’s thing is glowering. It doesn’t help matters that the movie itself is so painfully mediocre. … And while Reese Witherspoon wears gorgeous costumes, she reserves the bulk of her tender chemistry for her other co-star, Rosie the elephant. Mary Elizabeth Williams, Salon.
Is there life beyond the living dead? Can Robert Pattinson, the 24-year-old Englishman who achieved a teen-talisman celebrity playing the dreamboat vampire Edward, find longevity in a post-Twilight Saga acting career? For a few moments in Water for Elephants, the answer seems yes. As Jacob Jankowski, a part that requires him mainly to be shy and watchful, RPattz radiates a slow magnetism that locks the viewer’s eyes on him. His easy smile — not the smirk he often plasters on Edward, or the louche sneer familiar from TV interviews — invites us inside his star quality. Richard Corliss, Time.
Still, although Christoph Waltz gets to indulge his taste for attractive, atrocious villainy as August, the leads are out of their depth. Witherspoon comes off best, but she’s playing someone who’s been knocked around a bit, and toughened up in response. She should have a shell as hard as an old peanut; instead, Witherspoon’s soft as cotton candy. Pattinson is more of a problem. He’s a tall, handsome young man, and it’s a good thing to see him away from the Twilight saga, with his hair finally combed and all that glitter washed off his face. But he’s still mopey and meandering and, well, bloodless. Stephen Whitty, The Star-Ledger.
Looking far more handsome than Holbrook ever did, Pattinson brings the same sullen sensitivity to 23-year-old Jacob that he has to the Twilight pics – perfectly fitting for an overnight orphan so recently derailed from his intended life path. Peter Debruge, Variety.
Hal Holbrook is superb as the elderly incarnation of circus veterinarian Jacob Jankowksi. His performance is so nuanced that his youthful persona, played by Robert Pattinson, seems all the more hollow. Pattinson’s performance is sometimes likable, but too often he wears a glazed expression. His love interest, Reese Witherspoon as Marlena, does her best to fill in his blanks with her charisma. But their romance lacks sparks. Claudia Puig, USA Today.
Below are review snippets about the performance of Christoph Waltz in Francis Lawrence’s Water for Elephants reviews. Most critics felt that the Academy Award winner (for Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds) stole the show from romantic leads Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon.
Going into Water for Elephants, the question was whether Robert Pattinson was more than the (unintentional) white-faced comic that he is in the Twilight series and whether he can hold his own at the center of a major feature. The answer is yes, sure, he’s fine, but that’s not the big news coming out of this movie. The big news is Christoph Waltz … when he’s onscreen, every eye is on him, no matter who is talking. Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle.
Fun too is Christoph Waltz as the scariest cat in the place. His August is the owner, ringleader, top con artist, and, yes, another inglorious bastard, a psychotic mix of snake charm and undiluted menace whose idea of corporate downsizing is to toss any extraneous labour right off the speeding train. Rick Groen, Toronto Globe and Mail.
The romantic chemistry between Ms. Witherspoon and Mr. Pattinson is nil. When they finally make love in a scene that is so dimly lighted you can hardly see them, it has all the heat of a kissy-poo game of spin the bottle played by 11-year-olds. It is left for Mr. Waltz to inject Water for Elephants with the little sense of danger it is able to muster. As the imperious, sadistic, furiously possessive August, he brings the same intensity that infused his Oscar-winning portrayal of Col. Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. Stephen Holden, New York Times.
The dynamic in the story depends on August’s jealousy of Marlena, and her stubborn loyalty to their marriage contract. This is where Waltz makes his contribution. Shorter than Pattinson, indeed hardly taller than Witherspoon, he rules over everyone as a hard-bitten taskmaster whose easy charm conceals a cold inner core; it’s the same dynamic he used as the merciless Nazi in Inglourious Basterds. He’s much given to offering champagne toasts with a knife hidden inside. Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times.
The female protagonist remains somewhat passive, as she was on the page, which can be frustrating. Waltz’s archetypal villain cannot help but steal focus when he’s on-screen, partly because of the abuse of which the character is capable, partly because Waltz is just so damned interesting to watch. That’s more than can be said for Pattinson, who is easy to take without having yet made a single surprising or provocative choice as an actor. Yet he, too, is at least in there working his two or three notes hard, and often effectively. Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune.
Water for Elephants (David James / 20th Century Fox / Regency)
As an aside:
“Praise, praise! Too much praise!” Christoph Waltz yells at the American Idol judges – one of them is Jennifer Lopez; another looks like Donatella Versace but I’m not sure if that’s her or not.
Waltz, as one of the judges in this American Idol spoof as seen on Jimmy Kimmel Live, has just had Stefano from Texas (I think) executed because his singing was horrible. Audience members boo Stefano’s murder, who’s then dragged offstage by two Nazi types with machine guns.
Anyhow, “praise, praise!” is what Christoph Waltz got for Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – in addition to a Best Actor Award at Cannes, a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and numerous critics awards – while “too much praise!” is what he has been getting for his performance in Francis Lawrence’s Water for Elephants. Waltz, in fact, has been accused of stealing the circus show from romantic leads Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson.
So far, the only published Water for Elephants review from a major publication comes courtesy of The Associated Press’ David Germain, who offers harsh words for the period drama directed by Francis Lawrence, and starring Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, and Christoph Waltz.
“The adaptation of Sara Gruen’s bestselling novel about romance and intrigue in a Depression-era circus plods along at a pachyderm’s pace,” writes Germain.
He adds that “Witherspoon and Pattinson are a three-ring snooze-fest together, bringing little passion to a love story supposedly so fiery, it blows the roof off the big top.
“The movie’s lone star attraction is Christoph Waltz, who won an Academy Award as a gleefully psychotic Nazi in Inglourious Basterds and here delivers another wicked performance as Witherspoon’s hubby, the cruel, jealous circus ringleader.
“… [Waltz] commands every moment that he’s on screen, further highlighting how dull fellow Oscar winner Witherspoon and Twilight heartthrob Pattinson are.”
I’ll be on the lookout for more reviews as they come out. Water for Elephants opens Friday.
Following a merciless pan in The Associated Press, Water for Elephants and its participants received a considerably warmer welcome from The Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy. Based on Sara Gruen’s 2006 bestseller, Water for Elephants was directed by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) from a screenplay by Richard LaGravenese; Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, and Christoph Waltz star.
McCarthy calls the period romantic drama “a decorous, respectable adaptation [… that] 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 … . But the vital spark that would have made the drama truly compelling on the screen is missing.”
Yet, McCarthy adds that Witherspoon, Pattinson and Waltz are all more than up to the task of bringing to life a potentially cliched story.
Regarding Robert Pattinson, McCarthy says: “Looking 300 per cent better than he did in his last non-Twilight outing, Remember Me, Pattinson is entirely convincing as Jacob.” (Note: It’s true that The Hollywood Reporter also gave Remember Me a positive review, but that was a different writer, Kirk Honeycutt. Todd McCarthy, then at Variety, gave a mixed review to the previous Pattinson outing.)
Christoph Waltz, the only performer to be singled out for praise in the AP review, “scores strongly as a powerful middle-aged man who doesn’t eliminate the snake in his grass before it’s too late.”
Reese Witherspoon, for her part, is “as fetching as ever as the platinum blonde any guy would want to catch,” although McCarthy goes on to complain that her horse-riding character “is still a shade too much the lady and not enough of a dame.”
Water for Elephants opens on Friday.
The Reese Witherspoon-Robert Pattinson-Christoph Waltz period drama Water for Elephants, Kenneth Branagh-Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, and Paul Walker-Vin Diesel-The Rock’s Fast Five have all received PG-13 ratings from the Motion Picture Association of America’s Classification and Ratings Administration, reports boxofficemojo.com.
Directed by Francis Lawrence, Water for Elephants features Pattinson, Witherspoon, and Waltz in a love triangle set in a circus during the Great Depression. Its PG-13 rating was for “moments of intense violence and sexual content.” Last winter, Pattinson’s romantic vehicle Remember Me also received a PG-13 rating. Water for Elephants opens on April 22.
Much like Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2 before it, Thor was rated PG-13 for “sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence.” Thor opens on May 6, opposite the romantic comedy Something Borrowed and the romantic dramedy Jumping the Broom.
Fast Five‘s PG-13 was for “intense sequences of violence and action, sexual content and language.” All four previous The Fast and the Furious movies were also rated PG-13. Fast Five opens April 29, along with Prom, Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil and Dylan Dog: Dead of Night.
Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson Water for Elephants movie image: David James | 20th Century Fox.