Water for Elephants

 

Water for Elephants

Screenplay by Richard LaGravanese

Based on the novel by Sara Gruen

Music by James Newton Howard

Cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto

Production Design by Jack Fisk

Produced by Gil Netter, Erwin Stoff & Andrew Tennenbaum

Directed by Francis Lawrence

2011

 

Cast:

Robert Pattinson

Reese Witherspoon

Christoph Waltz

Hal Holbrook

 

Production Studio:

Theatrical: 3 Arts & Flashpoint Entertainment

Video: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

 

Video

Aspect ratio: 2.35:1

Resolution: 1080p

Codec: AVC

Disc Size: BD50

Bit Rate: Moderate (25-30 Mbps)

Runtime: 120 minutes

Chapters: 31

 

Audio:

English DTS-HD MA 5.1

French & Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1

 

Subtitles:

Optional English SDH & Spanish

 

Extras:

Disc Extras:

• Audio Commentary with Director Francis Lawrence and Writer Richard LaGravenese

• Raising the Tent (15:40)

• Working Without A Net – The Visual Effects (22:35)

• The Menagerie (3:55)

• The Star Attraction (9:10)

• Secrets of the Big Top (12:10)

• The Traveling Show: From Page to Screen (9:15)

• Robert Pattinson Spotlight (3:55)

• Feature Performer Reese Witherspoon (2:35)

• Theatrical Trailers - in HD

• Digital Copy

 

Presentation:

Blu-ray Case w/ slipcover: BRD x 1 + Digital Copy

Street Date: November 1, 2011



Synopsis [Fox]:

Devastated by the sudden death of his parents at the height of The Depression, Jacob Jankowski (Pattinson), abandons his veterinary studies at Cornell University and, with no other family, no house, and no money, stows away on a train carrying the circus performers of The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Hired as a veterinarian to care for the troupe’s animals, Jacob is temporarily filled with the promise of an exciting life that comes with a traveling circus troupe. However, as he builds a rapport and falls in love with the star of the show, Marlena (Witherspoon), they become prey to the circus’s owner, Marlena’s violent and abusive husband August (Waltz).  With their love on the line, Jacob and Marlena come to a crossroads that will forever change their destiny.


     

 

The Movie: 7

When was the last time you saw an old-fashioned circus movie, replete with performing animals, clowns, trapeze artists, a circus train, murder, a triangular love story and a madman in control of the asylum?  Considering the cinematic possibilities, circus stories have been curiously underrepresented on the big screen over the years:  In 1952 there was Cecil B DeMille’s Oscar winning “The Greatest Show on Earth” with Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, Cornel Wilde, Gloria Grahame, and James Stewart as perhaps the only Oscar winning actor who remains in disguise throughout an entire movie.


     

 

There was Henry Hathaway’s 1962 “Circus World” with John Wayne, Claudia Cardinale and Rita Hayworth; and in the same year, the musical “Jumbo” with Doris Day, Stephen Boyd and Jimmy Durante; Carol Reed’s under-appreciated “Trapeze” in 1956 with Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis and Gina Lollabridgida; Charlie Chaplin’s 1928 silent classic “The Circus;” and a number of foreign language pieces of various descriptions.

 

But for all its pomp and circumstance and bad rap for having stolen the Best Picture Oscar from the likes of High Noon, The Quiet Man, and the not even nominated Bad and the Beautiful and (can you believe it!) Singin’ in the Rain, for me the best circus movie was and remains “The Greatest Show on Earth.”  Enter: “Water for Elephants.”


     

 

Water for Elephants begins with more than what we call a “nod” to James Cameron’s “Titanic.”  You can just feel that movie’s structure steaming across the screen at full speed even as Hal Holbrook is carted off in a wheelchair. Holbrook (now 86) plays Jacob Jankowski, a man pining for the time when he was a key member of the Benzini Brothers Circus of 1931, a circus remembered more for how it disastrously came to an end than for its performers – animal or human. He recalls his story to a rapt audience of one, of how his parents were killed in an auto accident on the even of his graduation from Cornell University School of Veterinary Science, and how he (now Pattinson) came to join the Benzini Bros Traveling Circus, of how he fell in love with its star performer, Marlena, who just happened to be married, albeit precariously, to the temperamental circus owner and ringmaster, August (Christoph Waltz), and how he came to meet Rosie, the elephant that would save the circus from ruin.  Rosie can do some clever tricks, among them pulling her stake out of the ground and take it and her chain to get a drink of water and then return to her original place and re-stake herself, a gesture that takes on special significance later.


     

 

Did I say “temperamental” earlier? Christoph Waltz, who came to international prominence as the polyglotanous Jew-hunter in Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” plays August with a mean streak that does more than merely suggest Col. Hans Landa.  In an interrogation scene where he sets up both his wife and Jacob, whom he suspects as lovers, we recall Landa and the dairy farmer in Tarantino’s movie. We smile at the familiarity, but we also know this does not speak well of the director to pull something so low. As it happens there’s a great deal of this sort of thing in this film, starting with the Titanic narrative structure. Francis Lawrence never suggests anything when hitting it with a sledgehammer would do just as well.  The half zillion references of social significance to the Great Depression and everything that came with it would have made the old Warner Bros wince.  I’m afraid such lack of subtlety speaks poorly of what the filmmakers believe is an uniformed audience who have no idea of their country’s history.  Sad thing is they may be correct.


     

 

Pattinson, in his second starring role as a human in a feature film (the first being the forgettable “Remember Me”), comes off better than I expected.  I wasn’t as convinced by the pairing with Reese Witherspoon, dreamily as they look at each other from their character’s perspective, but there is no doubting a certain smoldering charisma.  The surprising thing is that he’s just as good with Rosie, the elephant, as he is with Reese.  Maybe better.

 

The Benzini Bros Circus is a traveling circus. The train is one of the best reasons to watch this movie. It seems to stretch as far as the eye can see.  It belches forth animals, trainers, crew and performers almost daily it seems.  It’s a wonderful idea – too expensive to mount even in good economic times.  The fact that it exists when the population that attended them could barely afford the ten cent admission speaks volumes about the American spirit.


     

 

Image: 9/9

Production & art design and photography team up to immerse us in “Nostalgia” with a capital “N.”  Water for Elephants positively glows with the colors of autumn, the season where life begins its journey toward rebirth by dying first.  A fine grain is present in the nighttime and darkly lit interiors.  Contrast is always maintained with fine detail apparent regardless of texture.  In this regard Rosie is more interesting than Marlena, and many of the men have a substance and coarseness that bespeaks hard times and a harder life.


     

 

Audio: 9/7

If the image is good, the audio might even be better: Being a lover of old trains, I found myself immersed in the relentless chugging, the weight of the wheels, the scream of the engines.  Once under the Big Top, the sounds of the circus, the smell of the crowd – or is it the animals – I never could tell.  Precise pans, prancing ponies.  It’s all there, even the dialogue. And while James Newton Howard’s score feels lazily derivative (To Kill a Mockingbird, Ragtime, West Side Story), it also works – damn him.  Well, Handel did his share, so. . .


     

 

Extras: 8

Before I forget, I should mention that the volume level for the audio commentary is much higher than for the feature film (why do they do that, I wonder?) so keep your remote handy.  Director Lawrence and Writer Richard LaGravenese have a lively discussion about the making of their movie.  Oftentimes I would have a question that I hope is addressed in such commentaries, only to have my hopes dashed.  Not so here: I was particularly interested in why Lawrence chose to switch narrators from Holbrook to Pattinson as the flashback got under way.  I couldn’t help but observe that this results in a continuity error of sorts since it is Pattinson’s voice that is doing all the “remembering.” Sometime the writing seems more meant for the one voice, at other times, it’s the other.  In the commentary. Lawrence talks about the decision to use Pattinson despite that the material was written for Holbrook.


     

 

All of the other features are in high def and nicely presented in all respects.  I particularly liked that each segment has its own host, appropriately selected.  For example. Production Designer Jack Fisk guides us through “Raising the Tent” a fifteen minute feature about how one re-creates a circus for the movie; “The Menagerie,” a short piece about training animals for work in a circus movie, is hosted by veteran animal trainer Sled Reynolds; circus historian Gary Payne is on deck for “Secrets of the Big Top”: it’s all about circus lore; and “Water for Elephants” author Sara Gruen kicks off the segment “The Traveling Show: From Page to Screen.”  There is also an extended piece on working with “Rosie – The Star Attraction.”


     

 

The one unhosted segment is “Working Without A Net – The Visual Effects of Water for Elephants” – twenty-two minutes of brilliantly executed animated drawings that resolve into finished film.  Two EPK pieces that spotlight actors Robert Pattison Spotlight and Reese Witherspoon but, alas, none for Christopher Waltz, round out this generally useful assortment of bonus features.

 

Recommendation: 8

For all my criticisms, I rather enjoyed Water for Elephants. The main difficulty for me may not bother many people: that it gives up so much on first watching that a second would likely be redundant.  With its gorgeous image, dynamic soundscape and a host of bonus features, however, this should not deter you from giving it a spin.


     

 

 

Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

October 30, 2011

 


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