Water For Elephants DVD Review

There is a certain mystical quality to Water for Elephants which is decidedly difficult to attribute to Director Francis Lawrence (of Constantine, I Am Legend, and music videos), but becomes easier to understand when you consider the Director of Cinematography is Rodrigo Prieto (Biutiful, Babel, Brokeback Mountain, Frida, Amores Perros, and many more).

It’s the kind of thing that showcases the magic of film, because something, and I very specifically mean some very hard to describe or put your finger on thing, about what you’re watching makes it nearly impossible to doubt that you’re watching 1931, despite the vast and various failings of all the things that are meant to suggest 1931. That’s magic.

It’s a story about a young man who loses his parents tragically on the eve of his graduation from Cornell as a Veterinarian. He learns that his father mortgaged the family home to send him to school, and in the blink of an eye, he truly has nothing. With no ideas, he hopes to head for the big city, and in the black of night he hops a train that turns out to be the home of the travelling Benzini Bros. circus.

Said young man, Jacob (Robert Pattinson), learns that the circus might be able to use him, and he’s game. Of course, he kicks off by shoveling horse stalls, but once we learn his background, we find better uses for his talents. This mainly comes by way of the fact that the show’s star attraction involves the owner’s wife, Marlena Rosenbluth (Reese Witherspoon), and her horses. A true jewel in the circus crown, Marlena is a star as much for her looks as her control of animals.

Speaking of animals Marlena has to control, the owner of the circus, August (Christoph Waltz), has run Benzini Bros. since he was nineteen and the previous owner did a runner with the last of the cash when things were at a low point. August is a pretty obvious victim of Napoleon syndrome, and his act and attitude are rather straight-forward. He rules with an iron hand, and whenever someone displeases him, or he simply needs to cull the ranks due to poor receipts, he simply has them chucked from the moving train.

Naturally, Jacob and Marlena don’t take long in becoming drawn to each other, and insofar as the overall plot, there aren’t a lot of surprises. That is, apart from just how cuckoo August really is.

The novel has taken off, and won over many fans, but at the end of the day the film has little to recommend beyond the thoroughly engrossing creation of not only 1931, but the life of circuses themselves during the depression-era economy. The story itself is straight-forward and stale, and hopelessly telegraphed into the bargain, but watching the setting come to life is worth the trouble on its own.

This brings us back around to the magical way in which this is managed. It isn’t that Pattinson, or Waltz are particularly believable as characters existing in 1931 (they aren’t), and Witherspoon has rarely been believable as anything beyond a flighty airhead. It isn’t that the dialog and events overly seem to characterize the time we’re after (I’m not convinced they do). It isn’t even that the set design and so on really perfects the effort to display the period (a scene at a small grocer in town only looks of 1931 insofar as it appears for the all the world to be a backlot set from 1931).

No, this one goes down to pure movie magic, because somehow it feels like 1931, despite the fact that it’s difficult to point to anything that’s doing a great job of representing 1931. For those not overly impressed with maudlin drama that ultimately leads to very little, that may be the only sell to the film. The plot comes together decently, but turning out average here is a waste of Waltz, and a book that I’m led to understand has far more to say (anything would be more actually). It’s a lazy turn that is more interested in looking pretty than getting somewhere with its story, and that makes it hard to get anywhere with the characters.

Still, there is something to be said for kicking back with anything that knows how to work its visuals, and the circus train itself is not only a character in its own right, it’s the best one the thing’s got.


The standard DVD release doesn’t have a lot to offer in the way of bonus material, and fans of the film are definitely going to want to go for the Blu-Ray edition.

The DVD includes spotlight featurettes for both Pattinson and Witherspoon, and both are probably worthwhile only to their biggest fans, who will take any excuse to gawk at more footage of them. The Traveling Show: From Page to Screen is a decent featurette covering, obviously, the transition from the book to the screenplay, and then the effort to get things to look just so. This is a bonus that would go a lot farther if you were convinced that a decent job was actually managed in the process, but I haven’t read the book, so perhaps you were. Either way, it’s an above-average look for such a featurette.

You also get an audio commentary with Director Francis Lawrence and Writer Richard LaGravenese. This is a tricky one as far as commentary tracks go, because it’s actually pretty interesting, but I don’t know how much it will mean to the average fan of the film. It’s often technical in focus, and whether or not anyone is interested in Lawrence’s views on the film’s construction is anyone’s guess.

The Blu-Ray offers a much wider assortment of special features (see full list below), including several featurettes that are likely of much more interest than those reserved for the standard format release.





WATER FOR ELEPHANTS Blu-ray + Digital Copy

  • Robert Pattinson Spotlight
  • Feature Performer Reese Witherspoon
  • The Traveling Show: From Page to Screen
  • Working Without A Net – The Visual Effects of Water for Elephants
  • The Star Attraction
  • Raising the Tent
  • Secrets of the Big Top
  • Audio Commentary with Director Francis Lawrence and Writer Richard LaGravenese
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Live Extras
  • Exclusive: Stars of the Circus
  • Blu-ray Highlight: The Traveling Show: From Page to Screen
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Live Lookup
  • Digital Copy



  • Robert Pattinson Spotlight
  • Feature Performer Reese Witherspoon
  • The Traveling Show: From Page to Screen
  • Audio Commentary with Director Francis Lawrence and Writer Richard LaGravenese
  • Theatrical Trailer



Written by
Marc Eastman is the owner and operator of Are You Screening? and has been writing film reviews for over a decade, and several branches of the internet's film review world have seen his name. He is also a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Broadcast Television Journalists Association.

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