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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Melodramatic adaptation holds 'water,' but doesn't really impress

Adapting a novel to the screen is a tricky business. It's very easy to lose the magic in translation. That's why I was surprised to find that the screen adaptation of Sara Gruen's ""Water for Elephants"" was as strong and enjoyable as it was. I haven't read the novel, so I can't speak to the quality of the adaptation, but I can say the film will satisfy anyone who's looking for a conventional romantic fairy tale. The film settles for a safe, uninteresting ending, but it's forgivable because an adequate amount of charm and mysticism are present throughout the rest of the story.

The film follows a veterinary student named Jacob Jankowski (Robert Pattinson) who abandons his studies after his parents die in a car accident. Lost and without purpose in the middle of the Great Depression, Jacob decides to walk the train tracks in hope of taking his life in a new direction. In classic fairy tale manner, a magical train rolls around the corner, and Jacob jumps aboard; the story is full-steam ahead. The film doesn't have many original ideas, but when your movie stars Pattinson and is essentially a mix between ""Moulin Rouge"" and ""The Notebook,"" you're not going to have any trouble keeping at least the females in the audience interested.

Gruen is responsible for the majority of the film's success. Historical fiction is often out of proportion when brought to the big screen, but Gruen's story is surprisingly well balanced. She's able to bring out the magic and wonder of the circus from behind the scenes without going over the top. She manages to create a love triangle without leaning on it to support the story. It takes a certain amount of control over one's craft to achieve that kind of balance, and Gruen certainly pulls it off, giving the film great source material to draw from.

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Credit is due to director Francis Lawrence for the film's successful visual adaptation. In a time of CGI overload, this film actually has an authentic feel to it. Lawrence, whose other works include ""Constantine"" and ""I Am Legend,"" has always had a visionary touch but, it was surprising that he could create such a nostalgic atmosphere when most of his other work has been so dark and pessimistic.

Part of that nostalgic atmosphere is also due to James Newton Howard's score, which floats beneath the characters in their more tender moments. It's a bit over-sentimental, but is also reminiscent of classic Hollywood scores like ""To Kill a Mockingbird"" that are so sweet that you don't really mind that they're distracting you from what's happening on screen.

My biggest question going into the film surrounded Pattinson and whether he could carry a film by himself. After seeing all three films in the ""Twilight"" series so far, I had little to no faith in him. It pains me to say that he actually did quite a good job. Of course, he isn't really required to do much heavy lifting here because he plays a sane man at the center of all the craziness. His character has no substantial flaws but doesn't really need them since the story's main priority is the journey itself, not the lesson learned at the end. It's still too early to tell if Pattinson has any substantial talent, but he had a dozen chances to fumble the ball here and never did.

The more dangerous and intriguing performances are that of the circus' ""main attractions."" You have the hot-tempered ring leader (Christoph Waltz) and his wife (Reese Witherspoon) who's always the center of his show. Witherspoon delivers an acceptable portrayal of ""the fruit that must not be tasted"" and Waltz gives an even better rendition of the brutal master holding the whole show together. Waltz has the most talent and plays the most interesting character in the film, so naturally he outshines the other two lead performances.

All the praise I've thrown toward the film at this point is of the mildest variety. The film takes a very typical melodrama and makes it just easy enough to swallow. It's not going to sweep you off your feet, but it's probably going to lightly lift you off the ground long enough to be satisfied. Is there a certain amount of ""hammy-ness"" to it? Sure, but a certain amount of ham is good from time to time.

 

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