WATER FOR ELEPHANTS – Blu-ray review

I love it when a film surprises me.

One look at the cover for “Water for Elephants” and three words came to mind: cheesy, melodrama, chick-flick. The artwork looks like the cover of a paperback romance, even more so than the Sara Gruen novel the film was based upon. That book was a #1 New York Times best-seller, but it received a mixed review from The New Yorker, which praised the romantic novel for capturing the sounds and sights of a Depression-era circus, but complained that the main character “comes off as so relentlessly decent–an unwavering defender of animals, women, dwarves, cripples, and assorted ethnic groups–that he ceases to be interesting as a character.”

I haven’t read the book, but oddly enough I’d summarize the film version in nearly the same way. I just wouldn’t go so far as to call Robert Pattinson’s character uninteresting. Brooding, maybe, and soft-spoken, sensitive, certainly, because this is what “Twilight” fans like about him and this is what they expect to see in a film that pairs him opposite Reese Witherspoon, this time, instead of Kristen Stewart.

Witherspoon holds her own in a film that finds her competing with horses, an elephant, and Pattinson’s slow simmer, but it’s the third person in this circus triangle that’s most interesting.

Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz (“Inglourious Basterds”) and the authentic-nostalgic atmosphere that director Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend”) creates are the star attractions in this circus film–even though romantic tensions between Witherspoon and Pattinson take center ring. Waltz is positively mesmerizing as the volatile owner of the Benzini Brothers Circus, a complicated man who’s decent about some things, ruthless about others, practical when he has to be, and a slave to his own temper and violent tendencies. He’s also incredibly possessive of his wife (Witherspoon), the circus’s star performer, and that sets up a nice tension. He’s the reason why guys whose significant others rent or buy this movie will stay awake . . . well, that, and the skimpy circus outfits and nightgowns that Witherspoon wears.

Surprisingly, the realism is prevalent enough to balance the romance, and for me, that made for a drama (not melodrama) that was enjoyable to watch. When you have snarling dogs, circus hazings, guys tossed off trains, and a big-top disaster that you know is coming (because this is a frame story in which Hal Holbrook plays the aged version of Pattinson’s character), there’s plenty to keep things from getting too cheesy. Put it this way: if I had to recommend a chick-flick to guys who hate watching them with their wives or girlfriends, “Water for Elephants” would be right up there near the top of the list.

And the plot? While things move a little slowly at times, enough happens to hold your interest. Jacob Jankoski is in his fourth year as a veterinary science student at Cornell, hoping to follow in his father’s footsteps, when his parents are killed and he finds out his father mortgaged the house to pay for his schooling. Left homeless and penniless during the Great Depression he does what countless others did: he hits the rails, looking for a better life. And the train he jumps on ends up being a circus train, where he eventually displays his value to the owner by diagnosing problems with the animals. Soon he becomes a favorite of the owner, but that quickly turns to a love-hate relationship when it’s clear that there’s an attraction between Jacob and the ringmaster’s wife. And what is the disaster that we hear about in the opening sequence? The plot moves toward it, with the promise of a train wreck of some kind offering additional interest.

As I said, though, it’s Waltz’s performance and the nostalgic look at a Depression-era circus, with meticulously researched details, that makes “Water for Elephants” an enjoyable experience–despite its flaws. I’m not sure, for example, that the shift from Holbrook’s voiceover to Pattinson’s works completely, and there are a few logic problems that pop up now and then. The pacing also seems too connected to Pattinson’s brooding, at times, and I frankly expected Witherspoon to light up the screen more when she was in front of the camera. But still, “Water for Elephants” is a good film. It’s rated PG-13 for moments of intense violence (including some animal beating) and sexual content.

I have only one complaint about the video quality, and it’s tough to tell how much of it is the result of the transfer and how much of it came from original source materials, since I did not see this one in theaters: the night scenes turn to mud, with mild crushing. Thankfully there are only a few such scenes: when Jacob first hops on the train, and when August (Waltz) shows him the view from on top of the moving cars. Otherwise, the colors are big-top bright, flesh tones are natural, and scenes that show the roustabouts doing their jobs have a slight sepia tint to them to both emphasize the blue-collar work and add a vintage Dustbowl/Depression-era look. Edge delineation is generally strong, and the level of detail (hairs on an elephant’s trunk, for example) is superb. “Water for Elephants” comes to a 50GB Blu-ray disc via a decent AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, and it’s presented in 2.35:1 widescreen.

The English DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio does a nice job of supporting the illusion of Depression-era sights and sounds, with the rear speakers active enough to make for a lively, ambient atmosphere. The subwoofer only gets seriously involved in a handful of sequences, but the immersive soundtrack is enough to make up for that. Tonally it’s rich, as well. Additional audio options are Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.

This Blu-ray comes with a Digital Copy (not DVD) and just enough bonus features to satisfy the mildly curious. In addition to below-average commentary from Lawrence and his writer, Richard LaGravenese, that just doesn’t pack much into the bag, there are several features that are worth your time. Like “Working without a Net: The Visual Effects of Water For Elephants,” a 23-minute look into how they combined animatics, CGI, and digital compositing to create realistic action. Circus-lovers will also appreciate “Secrets of the Big Top,” a 13-minute look at circuses in America from the 1700s through more recent years. After that there’s “Raising the Tent,” a 16-minute look at how filmmakers recreated a Depression-era circus, and “The Star Attraction,” a 9-minute look at the trained elephant used in the film. People fascinated by page-to-screen journeys will enjoy hearing from author Gruen in a 9-minute feature. Finally, there are brief spotlights (4 and 2 minutes, respectively) on Pattinson and Witherspoon, with a trailer rounding out the extras.

Bottom Line:
Better than I thought because it’s evocative of a Depression-era circus, “Water for Elephants” is the kind of “chick flick” that guys can enjoy. Tolerate. Whatever.