Hollywood grows ever more disappointing. Bombs, shootouts, whiz bang visual effects and computer generated imaging being the common currency in the bulk of filmmaking these days, most of the results are empty of any genuine storytelling. Especially dismaying when writer, director and production company begin with an already proven story, and without all the fake fireworks fail miserably because they’ve forgotten (or never learned) how to use film in telling a story without a truckload of modern iEffects. The shortfall is even greater when the project is based on a story that has all the elements for becoming a rewarding and successful movie. In this case, the villains are Fox 2000 Pictures, along with director Francis Lawrence, writer Richard LaGravenese and producer Kevin Halloran, each having a part in ruining the movie Water for Elephants.
The picture is a complete washout, a puzzling disappointment and a project of irritating inadequacies and wrong choices. Too bad that Sara Gruen, who wrote a beautiful novel, took the money and ran. But where does one start in describing the failure of a picture with so much potential? Is it fair to blame director, screenwriter and producer, along with the film’s production company for such a complete lack of artistic success? The ‘artistic’ distinction is important, because the producers of Water for Elephants would be quick to point out that the film earned a profit, and will continue to earn more on the DVD release. Yeah, but…
Shortly before graduation from Cornell University, Jacob Jankowski’s parents are killed and he is left penniless and basically alone in Depression-era America. In his despair he fails to return for his final exams and jumps a passing train, which just happens to be a circus train carrying the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. A veterinary student with an almost-degree, Jacob is taken on as a veterinarian by the impresario. The man tells him not to worry, that it’s all smoke and mirrors anyway. But he is a cruel man, and his circus is a shoddy business on its last legs. Jacob is captivated by it all, and quickly finds his place among the drunks, misfits, hoochie-coochie girls and a menagerie of wild animals. It all ends happily after two hours, but not without casualties of both man and beast.
Twenty minutes into the picture I began to wonder if they had run out of lightbulbs while filming and decided to shoot everything in near blackness. With a thirty-eight million dollar budget is it too much to hope that the scenes will be visible, that we won’t have to pick vague shadows out of an all black screen? Or perhaps it was meant as a camouflage for Jack Fisk’s second-rate production design. In all the darkness the magic of the circus was lost. Poor lighting and production design left the film empty of all that is dazzling, colorful, electric or even mildly exciting about the circus, with none of the ‘pathetic grandeur’ described by one reviewer of Ms Gruen’s novel.
Perhaps the biggest mistake by the production team was the decision to take all the scenes in the nursing home out of the film version. The narrator of the novel is an elderly Jacob speaking years after the events being recalled, a method of storytelling skillfully exercised by the writer. In order to understand the power of the circus in the older Jacob’s life, scenes move alternately between his younger circus days and his days in a nursing home. This adds a dimension, a richness absent in the film, which introduces us to an old man (Jacob) hanging around a modern day circus entrance hoping to get inside. A huge part of the Jacob’s later life is neatly excised by screenwriter LaGravenese, and we get a sandwich-thin character hoping to get into the circus after dark. The casting of Hal Holbrook in the small role of the elderly Jacob is also up for question. Like the younger version, played by Robert Pattinson, a less known face would have served the story better.
Reese Witherspoon plays the love interest part of Marlena well enough, though the original casting idea of Scarlett Johansson might have been better. Unfortunate too that Sean Penn dropped out, making way for Christoph Waltz to play the evil circus impresario. Given the writing, his was a difficult role to play. Robert Pattinson as the young Jacob Jankowski is believable throughout and brings a quiet charm to the character. Smaller roles are all lost in the dark. Rosie the elephant is short shrifted and only half the elephant she is in the novel. Another bad choice was leaving out completely the lovable Bobo the chimp, one of the special delights of the novel.
No matter the film or the material given to work with, the director ultimately bears the largest responsibility for the final product. In Francis Lawrence, Water for Elephants was saddled with a director having little experience in feature films, but one more versed in directing music videos and moving people like Britney Spears and her dancers around a soundstage. A different director may have salvaged something of the magic in Sara Gruen’s novel.