June 19, 2013
Written by Sally Sanders
Monday, 02 May 2011 13:53
Each week, the Reel Dad checks the nutritional value of a movie — new or classic — to help parents choose what to watch. This week’s pick is a new film adaptation of the best-selling novel Water for Elephants.The circus is an entertainment institution that, for hundreds of years, has thrilled audiences of children and adults. Movies have, as well, had a fascination with the big top, from Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth to David Lynch’s Elephant Man to the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus. Joining this celebrated tradition, with disappointing results, is the film adaptation of the best-selling novel, Water for Elephants.
On the surface, everything seems right with this film. It looks good with effective period detail recreating the Great Depression. But the impact is shallow because, as soon as the characters begin to speak, the film starts to unravel. Should it tell a gritty tale of circus life or try to develop a tense romantic triangle? And what about the elephant? Does she possess mystical powers or is she simply easy to train? The film fails to choose what story to tell and, as a result, confuses more than entertains.
The film’s story, however, would indicate strong potential. A young man — deprived of completing his degree to be a veterinarian when his parents die — wanders, penniless, until he happens to jump onto a circus train. That the circus has a sick horse — and no veterinarian — is the first of many coincidences in his path — leading him to befriend the villainous owner of the circus and his wife, the star attraction. This sets up a not-so-surprising triangle that soon becomes a quartet with the arrival of a magical elephant named Rosie. Slowly, the owner erupts, the wife emotes and the young man contemplates until, finally, a circus disaster shakes everyone up.
Such a story only works when performances are strong, and that doesn’t happen here. Robert Pattinson, best known for the Twilight films, looks off into the distance as if searching for a character to play. Christophe Waltz, an Oscar winner for Inglourious Basterds, repeats that performance, gesture by gesture. And Reese Witherspoon, whose Oscar for Walk the Line seems a long time ago, is a mess. The part demands a femme fatale such as Kathleen Turner in Body Heat or, years ago, Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, a woman for whom men will do anything. Witherspoon, however, plays the role as if she is portraying Elle Woods again in Legally Blonde. And that was a different movie.
Screenwriter Richard LaGravenese tries to create a romantic melancholy that he brought to life in his successful adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County. But he never gets close, perhaps because he tries to be too faithful to the novel, more likely because he is unwilling to choose which story to tell. Instead of exploring the backstory of the circus — that DeMille showed us in the early 1950s — he glosses over the gritty details. And, instead of creating an endearing romantic drama, he offers people who pose, fail to show us how they feel, and barely keep our interest during what slowly progresses through a long two hours.
So, if a visit to the circus in on your movie menu this week, skip the elephants (unless you want to revisit Dumbo) and check your Netflix queue for other circus films we have enjoyed over the years. Usually, the circus always entertains; this visit, however, never connects.
Water for Elephants
* Content: Medium. The basics of the story should provide enough interest and, with a stronger cast, may have worked on screen.
* Entertainment: Medium. Unfortunately, the filmmakers dilute the potential impact of the story by trying to cover too much ground, failing to find a focus, and miscasting the principal roles.
* Message: Low. With such muddled proceedings the only message that emerges is, if you hit hard times, look for a circus or an elephant. Or both.
* Relevance: Low. Little in this film will inform, entertain or inspire. It may simply bore.
* Opportunity for Dialogue: Low. If you share this film with your older children, it could open the door to a discussion of The Great Depression. But you could have that conversation without watching this film.
(Water for Elephants is rated PG-13. The film runs 122 minutes.)
2 Popcorn Buckets
|< Prev||Next >|