When people sit down to watch "Water for Elephants"—the big screen adaptation of Sara Gruen's best-selling novel—will anyone really be focused on the beautifully composed shots by director Francis Lawrence ("I am Legend") and DP Rodrigo Prieto ("Babel," "Brokeback Mountain"), the glorious costumes by Jacqueline West ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"), or the well-drawn performances by Christoph Waltz and Reese Witherspoon, both Oscar winners? Or will two hours go by with a singular question hovering in the audiences’ mind: "Can Robert Pattinson act?"
Well, yes, he can. He takes a giant leap away from the "Twilight" films which made the 24-year-old an uber-famous millionaire and turned Hot Topic into a lion's den of weeping tweens.
"Water for Elephants" follows a young veterinary student (Pattinson) who joins a Depression-era traveling circus to escape a tragic loss, only to find himself in a dangerous love square with the star performer (Witherspoon, who oddly enough played Pattinson's mother in 2004’s "Vanity Fair," though the scenes were later deleted when they were deemed too unbelievable), a sadistic ringmaster (Waltz), and the circus' last hope, an elephant named Rosie (Tai, "Operation Dumbo Drop," who steals the show from her human counterparts).
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Though the film starts and ends by taking a page from the heavily contrived "Titanic" playbook (bookend scenes featuring Hal Holbrook as "Old Robert Pattinson"), once you're transported under the big top as it's hoisted aloft in a dusty field, the sun seemingly paused at Magic Hour, it soars like a contortionist shot out of a cannon.
Lawrence and Prieto serve up a feast for the eyes as Witherspoon saunters about channeling Jean Harlow, Waltz ("Inglorious Basterds") continues his reign as Hollywood's most delightful bad guy and Pattison blossoms in a young Hugh Grant sort of way; adorably embarrassed by his charms. Still, the film's most winning moments come courtesy of the animals who melt the audience’s heart and bring them to tears.
While "Water for Elephants" isn't without some serious script-related stumbles (sorry, Hal), it's a pedigreed drama of great beauty that announces Pattinson as a star to be reckoned long after the dust of "Breaking Dawn" settles.