updated 04/21/2011 AT 4:00 PM ET
•originally published 04/22/2011 AT 7:00 AM ET
Water for Elephants’ most compelling star is gorgeous, nails her scenes, and pretty much runs away with the movie – not too shabby for an elephant competing for screen time with two of Hollywood’s biggest names.
Based on Sara Gruen’s enormously popular novel, the movie is ostensibly about the love between two people: former veterinary student Jacob (Robert Pattinson), a stowaway on the Benzini Brothers traveling circus, and Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), the show’s headliner. But with sluggish action and a patent lack of chemistry, the two-legged actors just can’t compete with the pachyderm’s charms.
Water (rated PG-13) is, for its faults, beautiful to watch. The actors are gorgeous, of course, and the sets and costumes artfully recreate the wonder of a Depression-era circus. Fact is, it might all be too pretty, missing the grime and grit that added to the book’s sense that all was not right aboard the Benzini Brothers train.
In the film, that feeling of menace is embodied by Marlena’s ringmaster husband, August (the always exquisite Christoph Waltz), a man who’s obsessed with his wife, brutal to the animals, and handles cash-flow problems by chucking employees off the train – while it’s moving. August copes with the growing flirtation between his wife and his circus vet by beating his new elephant, Rosie, mercilessly, and take note that those scenes are brutal to behold.
The confusing thing is that August can sense Marlena and Jacob’s romance at all, since whatever sparks there are between the two actors are all but invisible. Witherspoon seems disconnected, while Twilight star Pattinson is too subdued, even if he is at his most likable in the role. (Hal Holbrook, as the older Jacob telling the story in flashback, is warmer and more vivid than either of the two leads.) They don’t seem like a couple in love so much as one united in hate, despising August and his execrable bullying of the elephant – all of which makes for great animal drama, but not much of a romance.
Rosie (played by veteran performing elephant Tai), however, is the real deal. She’s funny, sweet and protective, while also the most vulnerable soul on the screen. Her big moment in the film’s not-quite-wild-enough climax is well-earned and the best part of the scene. In fact, as integral as she is to the action with her timing and her tricks, you could almost say that Tai’s performance saves the movie. Without her, Elephants doesn’t hold water.