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April 22, 2011 by · 5 Comments 

Sara Gruen’s novel Water for Elephants has managed to maintain a foothold on one New York Times best seller list or another for more than three years. Even now, the novel, set in a 1930s traveling circus, tops the Paperback Mass-Market Fiction list and is No. 2 on the Paperback Trade Fiction list. So it was inevitable that in their reviews most critics would compare the movie with the book. Strikingly, those that do are the most critical of the movie; those that don’t, for the most part, find much to like about it. Stephen Holden of the New York Times is among the former, writing that the movie “so studiously tries to cram all of the book’s incidents and characters into two hours that it forgets it is telling a story.” Moreover, Holden suggests, the movie forgets that it’s a movie. “As a piece of storytelling, the film displays its most disastrous choice when it makes the book’s climactic rampage seem perfunctory.” Referring to the 1952 circus spectacle The Greatest Show on Earth, Holden remarks, “Where is Cecil B. DeMille when we need him? I wondered, as Water for Elephants drew to its dull, tidy conclusion.” Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal refers to another scene in the novel which, he says, receives short shrift in the movie. “What was a magical discovery in the book becomes a mildly intriguing plot point,” he comments. Roger Moore in the Orlando Sentinel writes: “Whatever romance and charm Gruen summoned forth from these rough and tumble show people living by their own laws in a traveling, self-contained world of poverty and cruelty, director Francis Lawrence has hacked and ground them off.” But Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer calls the movie “a throwback to old-school Hollywood action/romance.” Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times also finds the story “endearingly old-fashioned” and concludes: “This is good sound family entertainment, a safe PG-13 but not a dumb one, and it’s a refreshing interlude before we hurtle into the summer blockbuster season.” Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune says that the movie “elevates pure corn to a completely satisfying realm of romantic melodrama.” And Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times walks a tightrope between the two camps of critics. “There is quite a bit to enjoy in a film that certainly qualifies as broad-based popular entertainment. But because the ingredients are so promising, there hangs over this serviceable project the wish that it had turned out better still,” he remarks. The movie stars Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon, but supporting actors Christoph Waltz and Hal Holbrook are receiving the most praise from the critics. Many moviegoers will be wondering whether Pattinson can hold his own without all the falderal of the Twilight films. (His first non-Twilight movie, last year’s Remember Me, flopped.) Wesley Morris’s conclusion in the Boston Globe is typical of many: “It remains unclear whether Pattinson is any kind of actor, but it wouldn’t be premature to declare that, at the very least, he’s not the bad kind,” he writes.